Let's face it. The Secret of Kells never stood a chance at this year's Oscars. Against the might of Wes Anderson's star-studded Fantastic Mr Fox, Disney reloaded and the 3D, CGI behemoths of Pixar's Up and Henry Selick's Coraline, this obscure, low-budget, 2D, hand-drawn Irish animation set in a cloistered 9th century Celtic abbey looked about as out of place as a goldfish plunged into a shark tank. Though its nomination for Best Animated Feature is a rare example of The Academy using its powers for good, since the word-of-mouth that's followed has garnered it a UK cinema release, as well as guaranteeing that more than a handful of people at festivals will see it.
And see it you must. Your eyes might take a while to adjust to the film's unique aesthetic. The characters themselves - borderline crude, though expressive, line drawings - aren't much to look at, for starters. Our young protagonist, 12-year-old Brendan, is an inquisitive monk-in-training whose calling as an illustrator of religious manuscripts is sparked by the arrival of hoary old wise man and master 'illuminator', Aidan. Inspired by Celtic art and the ancient manuscripts - including the Book Of Kells (which illustrate the Four Gospels, though this is kept pretty vague) - on which the plot turns, it's the film's extraordinary scenery and designs which lend its breathtaking and mesmerizing originality.
Like some trippy retro platform game, when Brendan first opens the mysterious Book Of Kells or enters an enchanted forest, the frame is flooded with a wash of flat, kaleidoscopic patterns. The sky is filled with showers of geometrically designed snowflakes and swarms of intricate, glittering butterflies, while the forest floor is carpeted with identically curlicued bluebells. The effect is dazzling, and the abstract, stylized nature of the design - so far removed from the pristine hyper-realism so much popular animation strives for - creates an ethereal, numinous universe. It has hints of the magical silhouette animations of Lotte Reiniger, but is really unlike anything you've seen before.
This, along with Bruno Coulais' evocative score, fits the narrative perfectly, which - again, setting it apart from traditional kiddie fodder - is a complex mesh of moral questions and folkloric quest, with no clear path laid out for our hero, or a monochrome good and evil to live by. As the gnomic Aidan repeatedly pronounces, often when young Brendan seems to be gunning for a simple 'yes' or 'no' response, 'there is nothing in this life but mist'. Not exactly the kind of advice you can imagine Baloo doling out now, is it?
Suffice to say, when shit goes down, you might want to cover your little ones' - or your own - eyes. The wolves Brendan encounters in the forest, and the marauding Vikings, starkly rendered in blood-red and pitch black, are the stuff of fevered nightmares - and none of the horror of their invasion is dialed down to spare impressionable viewers. Grown-ups are so spoilt for choice when it comes to quality animation these days; it almost makes you pity the poor children.