No 3-D. Little CGI. What made Secret of Kells Oscar-worthy?

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

OK, what at first glance doesn't seem to really belong on this list? Coraline, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, Up and The Secret of Kells.

Yep! Among all the widely released big studio animated features that were nominated for Best Animated Feature at this year's Oscars, the plucky little primarily-hand-drawn Belgian-Irish-French co-production about the creation of the gorgeously illuminated medieval manuscript The Book of Kells seems like the little animated feature that could!

The Secret of Kellst has no 3-D. It has precious little CGI. It has no big studio pedigree. In a lot of ways, when you look an animated feature like How to Train your Dragon, The Secret of Kells looks like as much of a throwback to a handmade aesthetic as an illuminated manuscript does compared to a Nicholas Sparks paperback.

Unfortunately, there's another capacity in which The Secret of Kells doesn't belong among all the other flicks it competed against. All the other nominees for Best Animated Feature had really solid, character-driven scripts.

This isn't to say that The Secret of Kells isn't worth seeing. It is one of the most gorgeously stylized animated movies to cruise down the pike since The Triplets of Belleville. To say it's weak because of the script might be like saying Fantasia could have used a good script polish by Paul Haggis. Or David Mamet. But there are nagging points in The Secret of Kells when a smidge more craft could have been applied to the story.

At one point our hero, a boy named Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire), who has never been outside the walls of the Abbey in which he's being raised, is asked by somebody who knows this to go out and do some pretty detailed herb lore in the dark forest. Because the plot necessitates it. Once in the forest, Brendan, who's afraid of the forest, bravely charges into a Blair Witch-y kind of place where even the forest dwellers are afraid to go. Because the plot necessitates it. In a scriptorium full of experienced monks, the least experienced illuminator (who has only just learned how to hold a goose quill) is chosen to illuminate the most important pages of the most important book in the scriptorium. Because the plot necessitates it.

Yeah, these might ultimately be nitpicks. The Secret of Kells is so stunning in its execution and craft that it might be best to just appreciate it as a work of visual art and not as an example of the storyteller's craft. The characters and backgrounds are translucent, looking for all the world like stained glass images given life. At the same time, the characters are drawn in a way that sort of looks like they're from an illuminated manuscript. The sense of movement, not just with animals and people but with waves and trees and shadows and even the exhaled breath of people on a cold day, is pure poetry for your retinas.

Young Brendan's journey into the forest, even though it doesn't make much narrative sense, is dropkick-to-the-sternum beautiful. The play of sunlight and shadow, the sense of layers among the trees, all feel like some kind of collision of John Boorman's Excalibur and the coolest kids' book ever made. The animation of the little white kitty named Pangur Ban (a shout-out for fans of medieval Irish poetry) who accompanies Brendan is the most righteous animation of a kitty cat since Bruno Bozzetto's "Feline Fantasies" segment in Allegro Non Troppo.

And the vocal work is pretty damned great. As Cellach, the head Abbot of Kells who wants to save the books under his care by walling off the abbey from the pillaging Vikings, Brendan Gleeson brings amazing presence to a role for which he's not really ... ummm ... present. Mark Lally, vet of The Secret of Roan Inish, brings a springy joy to Brother Aidan, a monk refugee from a monastery that was destroyed by the Vikings.

Despite the aforementioned character lapses, when the script works, it works well. There's a nifty, almost Let the Right One In-like relationship between Brendan and an ancient elf girl named Aisling (voiced by Christen Mooney) that has a whiff of melancholy worthy of Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke. Brendan has pretty interesting relationships with two father figures, his uncle, Abbot Cellach, and the master illuminator Brother Aidan, who shows the kid the wonders of mixing pigments for ink and who teaches him the art of illuminating.

The Secret of Kells is a lot like a gorgeously illuminated manuscript for people who don't read medieval languages. It's wonderful to look at. But if you try to wring too much sense out of it, you'll end up frustrated. Just watch the pretty images, enjoy what works well, and gloss over the parts that don't really click.

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