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The Secret of Kells -- Film Review

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The animated feature that made everybody go "huh?" when Oscar nominations were announced last month, "The Secret of Kells" is certain to elicit its fair share of wows as it arrives in U.S. theaters.

The Irish import takes its inspiration from, of all things, the 12-century-old Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript transcribed by Celtic monks. The stirring tale, with its startlingly vibrant, mainly hand-drawn animation, serves as a valuable reminder that one doesn't always need 3D to make an image pop.

With its universal themes of the transcendent power of imagination and following one's dreams, this limited release through GKIDS, the longtime producer of the New York International Children's Film Festival, offers something for all ages, though some sequences could prove too intense for the under-5 set.

The colorful world of Kells is seen through the eyes of 12-year-old Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire), who lives an insulated life in a virtual fortress of a medieval abbey under the constant watch of his uncle, the stern Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson).

But the arrival of Brother Aiden (Mick Lally), a master illuminator in possession of the magical but unfinished Book of Kells, has a life-changing effect on Brendan, motivating him to let his fertile imagination be his guide as he embarks on a quest that takes him well beyond the abbey's protective walls.

It comes as no surprise that the France-Belgium-Ireland co-production was produced
by some of the same parties responsible for "The Triplets of Belleville"; the two share that same, uniquely whimsical quality.

With Fabrice Ziolkowski's Irish-legend-and-lore-laced script setting the stage, co-directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey have created a visually stunning animated landscape, using the illustrations from the original Book of Kells as a potent jumping-off point.

Extensively hand-drawn with CGI reserved for dramatic effect, "Kells" proves that in the increasingly high-tech world of feature animation, there still can be a place for old-time tradition.

Opens: Friday, March 5, in New York (GKIDS)
Production: Les Armateurs, Vivi Film, Cartoon Saloon, France 2 Cinema
Voices: Brendan Gleeson, Evan McGuire, Mick Lally
Directors: Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey
Screenwriter: Fabrice Ziolkowski
Executive producers: James Flynn, Ivan Rouvreure
Producers: Didier Brunner, Tomm Moore, Viviane Vanfleteren, Paul Young
Production designer: Ross Stewart
Music: Bruno Coulais
Editor: Fabienne Alvarez-Giro
No rating, 75 minutes