Suffice to say that it received its highest profile in the form of a sure-to-lose nomination for the Best Animated Feature Oscar at the 2010 Academy Awards, but The Secret of Kells is no runner-up or underdog when it comes to imagination or creativity. Turning the origin story of the fabled Book of Kells into a fanciful but never frivolous work of historical fiction, co-directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey find a perfect synthesis between childhood exuberance and grown-up restraint, creating a singular and sensational animated work that needs no formal reward to be recognized as a great achievement.
In the film, a young boy named Brendan (Evan McGuire) struggles to understand the world outside the walls of the Abbey of Kells, which his stern uncle, the Abbott Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), has forbidden him from experiencing. Obsessed with illumination, a meticulous process by which the prophesied Book of Iona was created, Brendan soon falls in with Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), a master illustrator who offers to teach him how to draw. But when Brendan ventures outside the walls of Kells for some berries with which to paint the Book's magical images, he discovers a new universe of possibilities – presided over by Aisling (Christen Mooney) – that offer untold opportunities, and untold dangers.
Visually speaking, The Secret of Kells looks unlike anything that most moviegoers have ever seen: a combination of broad and subtle details, the images are gorgeous and saturated and awe-inspiring in their expert combinations of hand-drawn shapes, computer-animated movement and almost screen-printed textures. Although it's only in that depressingly outdated 2-D format, and the characters themselves are even drawn in a (spatially) flat way, they move forward and backwards in the frame, conveying depth, even as their behavior makes them compelling and emotionally three-dimensional. It's this combination of simple and complicated, both in terms of concept and execution, which bolsters the movie's uniqueness; too often animated films dote on certain sequences while skimping on others, but the film has a cohesiveness of vision that makes it invigoratingly unique.
Meanwhile, the story starts off slightly prosaic, at least for an animated film; not only does it appear to establish certain conventional characterizations and character dynamics, but its core story – about the routine and regularity of a monk's life – suggests this will be a textbook tale of iconoclasm. After a gaggle of monks comically chase down a goose, however, the film settles into a less obvious groove, first by staying true to some extent to its historical and religious origins, and then by using those origins to take the characters and story (and eventually, the audience) to places we never thought of or imagined.
Brendan's first trip outside the walls of Kells turns dangerous very quickly, but his introduction to Aisling, and his subsequent indoctrination into the world of illuminators, gives the film a melodramatic and yet somehow more honest momentum, and we're drawn in and swept along by the dangers both of Cellach's disapproval, and later, the impending forces of barbarians who threaten literally to burn Kells to the ground.
Make no mistake, however; the film isn't trying to chronicle the actual minutes of the creation of the Book of Kells, but the spirit in which it was presumably (or maybe hopefully) conceived: the way in which its impossibly-complicated artwork was created to delight and enchant and reflect the grandeur of a hopeful, virtuous world, even as forces physical and metaphorical conspired to render it unimportant. This isn't a religious film – there are wood fairies and magical creatures – and like what The Apostle does for spiritual redemption, this one does for the idea of devotion or commitment. But its entirety seems to be enough in love with both its subject and the form in which it's exploring it that The Secret of Kells is magical and realistic and inspiring and humanizing all at once.
Mind you, it doesn't seem destined to cross over in the way that something from Pixar will, or even that the films of international icons like Hayao Miyazaki will find a devoted following. But the movie itself is about perseverance in the face of being overlooked, dismissed, or even destroyed, which is why The Secret of Kells may not be widely shared or more conventionally celebrated, but it deserves better than to live up to its name.