Refreshingly different precisely because its look is so profoundly retro, “Brendan and the Secret of Kells” harks back not just to older animation styles but to pre-medieval illuminated manuscript tradition. With its jewel-bright colors and intricate use of lines, the result is absolutely luscious to behold. Evoking the simplified drawings of children’s books, the pic will most please the underserved 3- to 10-year-old demographic (even though bits are quite scary) and parents, but older kids may be sniffier, especially given the earnest, joke-light screenplay. Theatrical prospects, even in Europe, look tricky, but “Brendan” could reap lots of ancillary coin.
Set sometime during the ninth century, the story revolves around young Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire), a roughly 10-year-old novice who lives in the abbey in Kells, Ireland. Brendan loves helping the monks (a multicultural gang that includes an African and an Asian in a slightly too-PC touch) in the abbey’s scriptorium as they illustrate the gospels.
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But Brendan’s uncle, Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), wants him to devote more energy to help build up the abbey’s walls to protect the community from Viking invasions. Given the Nordic threat and the fact the surrounding woods are said to be enchanted, Brendan’s going outside the wall is strictly forbidden — and, of course, a plot inevitability.
Seeking refuge from the Vikings, renowned Scottish illustrator Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), with his fluffy feline friend Pangur Ban, arrives in Kells bearing his masterpiece, the lavishly wrought but still unfinished Book of Iona. Inspired by the master, Brendan becomes even keener to help complete the book, but that would require gathering special berries for ink in the forest, thus risking confrontation with the demons rumored to dwell there.
Debutant feature helmer Tomm Moore and the pic’s hordes of animators drew most of the characters by hand (although it’s easy to spot where CGI has been used as a supplementary tool). Their approach produces a pleasingly ye-olde-world-y look that plays off the simplified, UPA-studio-meets-the-Dark-Ages characters with intricate, Celtic design-inspired detailing, especially when the book literally comes to life.
Space is distorted so that everything looks deliberately flattened, yet there’s a very high level of craft deployed throughout to build up patterns within patterns. This may be the perfect film for children whose parents are art historians specializing in pre-Renaissance periods.
That’s not to say others won’t enjoy it, but finding an aud is going to be a challenge for marketing departments. Despite the many participants from across Europe listed in the credits, the pic’s most fruitful territory is likely to be Ireland, and even there, competition with Hollywood fare will still be tough.