The Secret of Kells (GKIDS, NR)

The Secret of Kells doesn’t really bother to flesh out its story, its characters, or pretty much anything else.

The Irish animated film The Secret of Kells surprised everyone back in February when it was announced as one of the five nominees for the Best Animated Feature category of the Academy Awards, in the process stealing the slot from more likely candidates Ponyo or Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. Why it surprised everyone is that no one even seemed to know it existed. Its U.S. distributor, GKIDS, snuck it out for a short qualifying run in L.A. while keeping the rest of America blind to it, and meanwhile it was not exactly lighting the world on fire in its engagements across the pond. And despite how strange its nomination seemed, based on the trailer and available stills, it didn’t seem unwarranted: The animation looks beautiful, and the idea is compelling.
Seeing the actual film, though, you see that the Academy made a serious mistake (especially giving the slot to this over Ponyo—what a travesty). The Secret of Kells has practically no story to speak of, is boring, is slight, and has animation not even as good as you initially think it is. While backgrounds and location shots are gorgeous, the character design is stupid and ugly. Kells’ style has been compared to UPA’s old films (“Gerald McBoing Boing,” the original Mr. Magoo shorts, etc.), but that’s a disservice to UPA. Their limited animation seemed fresh and light, and in Kells it seems lazy and ugly, especially in contrast to the ornate backgrounds.
The story, such as it is, concerns a boy named Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) who routinely sneaks out of his house so he can help Aidan (Mick Lally) complete his book. This requires Brendan to go deep into the forest, where he meets up with a fairy named Aisling (Christen Mooney). That’s really about it. With its 75-minute running time, The Secret of Kells doesn’t really bother to flesh out its story, its characters, or pretty much anything else.
That running time is also something of an asset, though; it will likely play well to a young audience because of it, and also it would be a nice find someday on cable TV or something, where you don’t have to drop $10 a person to watch it. As it stands, though, the only real reason to see The Secret of Kells is to quell your curiosity about what this obscure film is that snuck into the list of Oscar nominees in one of the greatest years for animation in recent memory. | Pete Timmermann

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