The biggest surprise of the past year’s Academy Awards wasn’t the triumph of Kathryn Bigelow or the ominous inclusion of “The Blind Side” to the Best Picture lineup. Rather, it was the nomination of a little Irish film known as “The Secret of Kells,” which had barely any screenings to its name, in the Animated Feature Film category. The question at the tip of everybody’s tongues became: What was the Academy thinking?

“The Secret of Kells”

At the Michigan

Yet once “Kells” emerged quietly onto the moviehouse scene, audiences understood. In a year where 3-D glasses and grand IMAX screenings dominated the box office, one can’t help but feel that the Academy members who voted for “Kells” were on to something — a form of silent rebellion against all things big and explosive.

“The Secret of Kells” finds young Brendan (newcomer Evan McGuire) living behind the walls of the Abbey of Kells, guarded aggressively by his uncle Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson, “In Bruges”). As Brendan befriends master illuminator Brother Aidan (Mick Lally, “Alexander”), he stumbles upon The Book of Kells, a religious manuscript with the most intricate hand-drawn paintings ever seen. In what becomes a classic brawn-versus-art showdown, Brendan ventures deep into the Gaelic underbelly of the forest searching for ink, feathers and a glass eye, encountering a few mysteries on the way.

It’s rare that the visual components of a film can completely saturate its entire being. Indeed, the Irish fairytale storyline seems to exist wholly for the sumptuous drawings depicting it. A flighty little nymph sprite, with her white hair blowing spiritedly in the wind, guides ribbons of smoke along the geometric curlicues of the screen. Armed with nothing but a pencil, Brendan battles fearsome villains as he catapults himself within a milky plasmatic nebula. And then there are the montages: some whimsical, like filigreed clockwork, some impressionistic, like a smudgy Renoir painting, and some brilliantly naturalistic — think jeweled leaves with verdure smeared all over the surface.

Yet although “Kells” features scenes heavily laden with Irish mysticism and subversively Pagan rituals, the film could essentially double as a social allegory for the modern film industry. Brother Aidan says dishearteningly to Cellach: “You’ve forgotten how important it is. All you want for us is this wall!” Just replace “it” with “hand-drawing” and “wall” with “hyper-explosive 3-D graphics,” and you’ve got yourself the perfect antidote to James Cameron and his devoted followers.

With a runtime of little more than an hour, “Kells” is a refreshingly different take on classic animation, lovingly and defiantly flattened into two dimensions. It’s inspiringly simple and more than a little trippy. By paying homage to an ancient time where beauty and patience inevitably won out over brute force, the film blends a straightforward morality with sophisticated hand-drawings to stunning visual effect. Truly, “The Secret of Kells” practices what it preaches.

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