An animated gem

'Kells,' about a 9th century abbey, deserved its Oscar nom

Posted: March 18, 2010

One of the nice things about 2009's being such a stellar year for animated movies is that it's not over.

Today marks the belated arrival of "The Secret of Kells," which received a surprise Oscar nomination for best animated feature, and a well-deserved one, as it turns out.

The Irish-made (but drawn by animators in some five countries) dazzler opens exclusively at the Ritz Bourse, and is worth seeking out for animation buffs, or those looking for some novel way to conclude a week of St. Patrick's celebrations.

"Kells" is the story of Brendan (Evan McGuire), a youngster at a medieval Irish abbey who, in the days before a Viking invasion, is forced to decide how to "save" his community and his culture.

The abbey is run by his uncle (Brendan Gleeson) who's wholly committed to fortifying the walls and protecting the citizens. A visiting monk (Mick Lally), however, wants Brendan (a talented artist) to finish and vouchsafe an illustrated religious manuscript.

"Kells" is rendered in an old-fashioned, two-dimensional style that gives new meaning to the phrase "traditional animation." Moore draws on motifs from Celtic art dating to the 9th century (when the movie is set).

Interestingly, we get few peeks at the artwork in the book itself (clearly based on the Book of Kells, an ancient and finely illustrated work of New Testament gospels).

Instead, Moore weaves these ancient motifs into the design of the natural world that surrounds Brendan's walled city. Against his uncle's wishes, he ventures into the woods to collect berries for the unique dyes that will color the book, and gets help from a magical fairy (Christen Mooney).

This is a way for Moore, a gaelic revivalist (who's set down the story of St. Patrick in graphic novels) to make a point about the way that Catholicism blended with existing pagan beliefs to create something culturally unique.

And, Brendan decides, worth saving. The movie's best scenes find him in the mysterious, treacherous forest, wherein Moore and his animators work their visual magic.

"Kells" is noteworthy for its unique, ornate design, its moments of silence (Moore is obviously a big Miyazaki fan) and gorgeous music.

And its distinctiveness. A hallmark of 2009 was (is) its variety - the best of Pixar, traditional hand-drawn Disney, the stop-motion genius of Henry Selick rendered in 3-D, even contributions from Wes Anderson. "Kells" is the capper, and a lovely one.

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