‘Secret of Kells’ comes to life with bright, imaginative spirit

Film Critic

“The Secret of Kells” is an anachronism many times over, and what a good thing that turned out to be.

A ravishing, continually surprising example of largely hand-drawn animation in the heyday of computer-generated imagery, an inexpensive and sophisticated European production in an age of broad-stroke studio films, even a spirited defense of books and bookishness while Kindles walk the earth, “Kells” fights the tide every way it can.

Yet this longshot that began as a college project for Irish director Tomm Moore edged Hayao Miyazaki’s “Ponyo” for one of five feature animation Oscar nominations, and in a year without Pixar’s “Up,” might even have won. That’s how magical this story of a boy and a book turned out to be.

The book is the Book of Kells, a circa AD 800 illuminated manuscript whose recounting of the four gospels was so dazzlingly decorated and illustrated (in part by the monks at the abbey of Kells) that it’s universally regarded as one of Ireland’s national treasures.

“The Secret of Kells,” co-directed by Nora Twomey, is a fable-like tale of how that book might have come to be completed, involving the stern Abbot Cellach (voiced by Brendan Gleeson), the master illuminator Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), and the 12-year-old Brendan (Evan McGuire), “the little brother with the big questions,” whose pluck and fortitude end up saving the day -- with a little help from some woodland friends.

But though “Kells’ ” story (by director Moore) and screenplay (by Fabrice Ziolkowski) are delightful, the narrative itself is only part of the reason for the success of a film that is a tribute to and an example of the power of the imagination, an enterprise that insists that what the mind imagines, the hand can achieve.

The heart of everything, not surprisingly, is that marvelous visual style, not only heavily Celtic influenced but also a glorious throwback to the more stylized, painterly work of decades past, the kind of vividly colored, fanciful pictorials that are usually confined to the small-scale realm of animated shorts.

Also breaking out of boundaries is the spirit of this film, which has room for multiple approaches. The main sensibility is light on its feet, even playful -- Brendan chases a goose, as it turns out, not to kill it but to pluck feathers for quills -- and there’s a sense of gentle fun about the proceedings that is tonic to experience.

But this easy nature also admits to the presence of evil, both the flesh and blood malevolence of invading Norsemen, looking like animated versions of the barbarians in Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky,” and the more mythological evil of dark forces that dwell in the murky depths of the forests.

Because he sees the forest as dark and threatening, the severe, unbending Abbot of Kells has decreed that young Brendan cannot go outside the enormous walls that he’s building around the abbey in the hope that they will keep the invaders at bay.

All this changes when Brother Aidan, a charismatic master illuminator whose work is of such high quality that “it’s capable of turning darkness into light,” shows up at Kells with a book he began illustrating on the island of Iona before the marauding Norsemen made him flee.

Very much attracted to the making of art, Brendan overcomes his fears and the abbot’s strictures to go into the forest in search of berries that Brother Aidan needs to make one of the manuscript’s especially vivid colors.

Deep in those trees, Brendan meets the marvelous fairy Aisling (Christen Mooney), both young girl and wolf, who introduces him -- and us -- to the glowing wonders of the forest, a place of pagan delights but also, as it turns out, the lair of Crom Cruach, a legendary monster who also has a place in the Kells saga.

With a firm footing in all these worlds -- blissfully pagan, devoutly Christian and darkly monstrous -- “The Secret of Kells” teaches important lessons in the most casual, joyful way. How it manages to do that is probably the biggest secret of all.