When the Academy Award nominations were announced last month, no film prompted more head scratching than The Secret of Kells, a virtually-unknown picture up for Best Animated Feature. You can see why Academy voters were so taken with it—it’s a gorgeous film with a unique, handcrafted style all its own. But it does not have the greatness of its fellow nominees; it lacks a narrative that matches its dazzling technique.Young Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) lives in the Abbey of Kellis, where Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) is overseeing the building of a tremendous wall to prevent a barbarian attack. Brendan, his nephew, is distracted from the enterprise by the arrival of Aidan (Mick Lally), a master illustrator carrying a magical but unfinished book. Brendan is fascinated by Aidan and his work, and becomes an apprentice and accomplice in its completion, much to the chagrin of his strict, fierce uncle.
The primary attraction of The Secret of Kells is the stylized, knockout animation. The film sports a snazzily distinctive look—it’s a pleasure just to gawk at. There’s a charming, paper cut-out quality to the animation, all sharp angles (even the rounded ones) and hard edges, lovingly organized into striking, inventive compositions. Directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey also enjoy playing with the frame—they utilize split-screen arrangements, borders, and alternate forms (the use of chalk drawings is memorable) to tell the story more efficiently.
It’s such a lovely film to watch, you burn with hope for the story to be as involving and compelling as its visuals. But the mind wanders during the picture—the storytelling is listless, and in spite of the attempts to bend it into a journey story in the middle or an action epic at the end, there isn’t much of a motor powering it from scene to scene. Ultimately, it’s not much more than a collection of pretty pictures.
But seriously, what pretty pictures. The characters designs are absolutely delightful (they capture the movement and sounds of cats in a way I’ve never seen in a film), the imagery vivid and sometimes scary. There’s a cold beauty to the desolate snowfall of the closing scenes (and the way it turns to red), and a playful majesty to the forest scenes. The Secret of Kells should certainly be seen, for aesthetic reasons if none other—you can’t take your eyes off it. It’s like a gorgeous piece of art. But, unlike some of the animated films it’s nominated with, it’s not a work of film art.
"The Secret of Kells" opens in New York City on Friday, March 5th.