The Secret of Kells (Not rated, probably PG) (75 min.) — The most surprising Academy Award nomination this year went to Tomm Moore's animated feature, which came out of nowhere — well, actually Ireland — to crash a list of the usual suspects; Disney and Pixar hits, and other major studios' near misses. The Secret of Kells is nothing like those mainstream movies, with good and bad alike to be discovered in that.
A more mature theme and execution is hard to find in a Hollywood 'toon. Moore depicts the fabled creation of the Book of Kells, a collection of gospels gloriously illustrated by Celtic monks in medieval times. A young boy named Brendan (voice of Evan McGuire) disobeys his abbot uncle (Brendan Gleeson) by assisting in the collection of forest nuts to create the brilliant inks used in the drawings.
There's a whiff of fantasy from a wolf-fairy guiding Brendan through an enchanted forest, a scary creature in his way, and also the reality of Viking hordes outside the monastery walls, poised to attack. But before you think this is another take on How to Train Your Dragon, know that Brendan's story unfolds without humor or marketing hooks. Most children will be temporarily dazzled by the animation, and eventually bored by the story.
The Secret of Kells does possess an extraordinary look, using the original illustrations as jump-off points for kaleidoscopic sights and fluid decorative art, each frame crammed with details. Like those medieval monks, Moore and his crew drew the movie by hand (except for a few CGI flourishes). Keeping that in mind makes the sensory experience even more remarkable.
Yet the film's novelty of classic technique in this age of computer-driven 3-D animation wears off quickly. Moore's reverence for this pious topic is deserved but does weigh down the narrative. The Secret of Kells is a movie about a picture book that practically becomes one itself.
Opens Friday at Tampa Theatre. B-