Just as The Secret of the Kells pays homage to the enduring spirit behind an ancient, illuminated Celtic text, so too is the film a sumptuous throwback to the vivid artistry of 2-D, hand-drawn animation. In that vein, this Oscar-nominated fable from director Tomm Moore and the producers behind the sublime The Triplets of Belleville also summons the influences of past and present animated masters, particularly the recent works of Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away).
Set in the ninth century inside the Monastery of Kells, the film opens as Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), a former illuminator, redirects his talents toward an obsessive effort to construct a giant wall around the Celtic abbey to keep out marauding, rapidly approaching Viking invaders. Abbot expects Brendan (Evan McGuire), his young nephew, to act in his stead. However, the star-eyed Brendan prefers to spend his time apprenticing with other monks in the scriptorium.
When master illustrator Aidan (Mick Lally) eludes the Vikings and arrives at the abbey's gates, he brings the Book of Iona-cum-Kells with him. Aidan enlists Brendan's help to finish the book, putting Brendan squarely at odds with his uncle.
The Secret of Kells posits several mature themes, including a healthy helping of Celtic, biblical and pagan imagery. Encapsulating a divide inside the Christian church, Abbot remains preoccupied with the protection from evil, while Aidan espouses changing the world through truth and beauty.
However, as you might expect with a luminescent fiction about the making of a musty medieval manuscript, the plot fails to stir any emotional resonance. The film's impressive aesthetics outstrip its kid-friendly storytelling, which is as reductive as a Saturday morning cartoon. As with many illustrated books, the strength of The Secret of Kells is its pictures, not their captions.