The thing that makes Tomm Moore's Irish fairytale The Secret of Kells so wonderful is that it is clearly the work of passionate and ambitious illustrators. The thing that makes the movie fall short of the mark, however, is that its story is in the hands of those very same illustrators. Focused on the power of art and drawing, Kells is a triumph of form over mythological content, a moving graphic novel that revels in its vividly colored shapes and shadows, intricate patterns and ornate design. If only that same loving attention had been lavished on the script.
Young Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) is a carrot-topped orphan living in the abbey of Kells under the care of his stern uncle, the abbot (Brendan Gleeson). Obsessed with protecting his community from brutal Vikings, the abbot has made his mission to enclose the village behind a great wall, and Brendan is forbidden to leave the monastery, as the nearby forests hold hidden dangers. When a visiting monk (Michael Lally) recruits the boy to help him finish an illustrated religious manuscript, Brendan ventures into the woods to retrieve berries needed for a special green ink. There he meets a forest sprite named Aisling (Christen Mooney), who helps him. Unfortunately, evil also lurks outside the village walls, as the savage Northmen plot their attack, dark gods conspire and an evil serpent waits in a pitch-black cave.
Moore gracefully mixes Gaelic paganism and medieval Catholicism, reviving Ireland's fascinating history of faeries and Christian culture. Obviously, themes of faith and war ripple beneath the surface but Kells mostly charts the victory of tenacious imagination over dogmatic pragmatism. It's the work of artists, an international coalition in fact. Recruiting animators from Ireland, Belgium and France, Moore's film is a sumptuous tangle of knots, spirals, panels and circles. Scenes are divided into triptychs, split screens and postimpressionistic paintings that glorify the craft of hand-drawn illustration. The best moments take place in the mysterious and shadowed forest, where the artists channel the work of Hayao Miyazaki. Light brilliantly dapples Brendan as he makes his way through the vast and lush wood, and when the Vikings show up, they are violently surreal. Their later attack on the village is a stylized achievement of crimson reds and seeping blacks. It's rare to see the horrors of war so beautifully and subtly rendered.
For all its intricate visual prowess, however, the film's character drawings are simplistic and inexpressive. This betrays the movie's main weakness, namely Fabrice Ziolkowski's script (taken from a story by Moore). Not only are Brendan, his uncle, and the other members of the monastery two-dimensional, the plot's conflicts and confrontations are resolved almost as soon as they are presented. This robs the tale of any real tension or drama, delivering a film that vacillates between dull storytelling and thrilling, richly imagined sequences. Kells makes up for these shortcomings, however, with mood and atmosphere. Though highly stylized, my young sons even found some of the scenes too intense and frightening.
As the surprise nominee at this year's Oscars for Best Animated Film, The Secret of The Kells' beautifully crafted animation proves the movie was a very worthy contender. It's undernourished plotting, however, makes its loss equally unsurprising.
Showing at the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.