Let’s be bold—here are the losers of the Best Animated Feature Film Oscar, certain to be claimed this weekend by Pixar’s unsinkable Up: Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox; the racially ennobled The Princess and the Frog; spooky Coraline; and this lovely international coproduction, mainly the work of Irish artisans. The Secret of Kells, unlike its worthy competitors, has some serious unconventionality on its side. While the others trade in stop-motion precision and CGI physics, this one goes fully for abstraction. It’s a brooding story set firmly in the Dark Ages and Celtic legend. When smoke billows over the walled, titular enclave—a home to gentle monks and families—the plumes come in looping, circular scribbles and your mind has to make the leap. (It does.)
In Kells lives young Brendan (McGuire), who, shepherded by his severe abbot father (the tart-tongued Gleeson), intends one day to illuminate a book with his goose-quilled pen. The boy yearns to see the outside world, though, and this is where he goes—the mostly hand-drawn animation morphs into strange new shapes as the trees narrow, crows caw menacingly and a female fairy slinks around in the form of a snowy panther. It’s all fairly enchanting, and there’s the added euphoria of being free of the incessant pop-culture riffing of either Disney or Altman-loving hipster directors. The movie isn’t quite suitable for the extremely young, but its apocalyptic tint may be catnip for smart preteens. They’ll breathe in the chilly air of a mysterious forest—the way forests should be.