When I say that The Secret of Kells — the Irish Oscar contender for Best Animated Feature that had everyone scratching their heads when it was announced a few weeks ago — harks back to an earlier style of drawing, I don't just mean pre-digital animation. I mean the kind of drawing that monks did in the Middle Ages; those curlicued borders and ornate letters they hand-painted in holy books.
In Ireland's Book of Kells, for instance — a 9th-century volume that took many monks many years to illuminate. In the film, there's a nod to traditional lore indicating that the manuscript originated at a Scottish abbey in Iona, and was then brought to Kells, where the illuminations were added. Its arrival thrills a young apprentice named Brendan, who's asked not just to help pluck goose quills for the other monks and find the right berries to make green ink, but also to do some of the drawing as they rush to complete the volume.
Meanwhile the abbot, who happens to be Brendan's uncle, is rushing to complete something he regards as more important than the book — a wall to repel Vikings. The artists protest that without books, knowledge will perish; he counters that without walls, they'll all perish.
"It is with the strength of our walls," he says, "that they will come to trust the strength of our faith."
Now, this qualifies as pretty heady stuff in a kid-flick world that's generally most comfortable with talking frogs, singing chipmunks and balloon trips. That medieval abbeys protected knowledge is historical, of course — the wisdom collected there helped Europe rebuild after the Dark Ages — but you wouldn't want the film to spend all its time on that. So Brendan slips out into the woods where he meets a helpful sprite and a nasty monster, giving the animators a chance to play with form and format until the Vikings attack.
The visual style the filmmakers have chosen is striking and quite beautiful at times, but deliberately flat, like pictures in a medieval manuscript. There's no 3-D trickery, no moving backgrounds. Trees are stylized, people geometric (one monk is triangular, another is essentially a curve with a bald patch), and the movement is as primitive as in Saturday morning cartoons. When you think that at the Oscars, The Secret of Kells is going up against Up, its chances seem slim — and probably are.
But there's something kind of captivating about a film that's been painstakingly drawn to glorify the craft of illustration, and that's comfortable using retro techniques. Because after all, what else makes sense for bringing to life the gold and scarlet ornamentation in ancient manuscripts?
I confess I actually choked up when that ornamentation came briefly to life in the film's final moments. It's low-tech, but high art — the secret to The Secret of Kells. (Recommended)