While people of a certain mind-set view making and enjoying art as a lazy, self-indulgent and ultimately wasteful activity, a lot of other people view it as absolutely necessary for preserving identity " whether that identity is individual, familial or national.
Set somewhere around the year 800, "The Secret of Kells" explores this theme through the adventures of Brendan (newcomer Evan McGuire), a preteen monk initiate living in the village of Kells with his uncle, the Abbot of Kells (Brendan Gleeson, "Green Zone"), and his small group of monks.
The film screens Friday-Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
For centuries, the main business of the monks was to produce illuminated manuscripts, but these days, the Abbot has conscripted them to build a stout stone wall around the village to keep out the Vikings, who have been marauding from the north, sacking and burning whatever and whoever they encounter.
The Abbot believes, in the face of this threat, that illumination is a frivolous indulgence his people can no longer afford. As an added bonus, Brendan isn't allowed to leave the walls of the village, for fear something dark and wild will snatch him up.
Then one day, a storied illuminator named Brother Aidan (Mick Lally, "Alexander") shows up in Kells, clutching a small satchel and his pet cat.
The Vikings have destroyed his home island of Iona, killing all of his fellow brothers. Aidan is the only one who managed to escape, bringing with him the famous book of Iona, a brilliant illuminated manuscript with a jeweled cover and illustrations that are supposed to be "like looking into heaven."
At Aidan's vague suggestion, Brendan breaks the Abbot's rules and leaves the village to gather oak berries, which will be used to make ink for the manuscript. In the wild woods Brendan meets Aisling (newcomer Christen Mooney), a sort of girl/fox/forest spirit.
The pair strikes up a friendship, and Aisling helps Brendan find his berries. She also inadvertently introduces him to the den of the dark pagan gods that still lie in wait for the unsuspecting.
As Brendan's relationship with Brother Aidan develops, it becomes clear that he needs Brendan for more than his berry-collecting skills: With old age catching up to his eyes and hands, he needs Brendan to finish his manuscript.
Unfortunately, Aidan has lost his most valuable tool: the crystal "eye" he used to create the miniscule, highly complex patterns that decorate his text. Without it, finishing the book is out of the question. As luck would have it, Brendan has a good idea where to find another one, and happens to be willing to risk the danger of retrieving it.
Truth be told, the story is rather simple: Brendan has to find enough inner confidence to take up the artistic tradition of his ancestors, and the bravery to stand up to both the Vikings and his uncle.
But the story doesn't need to be overly sophisticated to be charming. It really only needs to be strong enough to support the animation style, which is really the main attraction, and the reason "Kells" was nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar this year.
While the animation is a two-dimensional throwback style reminiscent of '60s and '70s-era fare like "The Point" and various Ralph Bakshi productions, with more vibrant colors, but no acid-tinged creepiness is missing. There's also a strong Celtic art influence.
This is what makes this movie really work: Its visual style is a masterful reflection of the art its characters are trying to protect and preserve. It seems impossible that there was a time when the only thing standing between 500 years of artistic tradition and oblivion was a handful of monks running around hiding books from plunderers. But the fact that so many others were lost lends weight to Brendan's accomplishment, however fanciful and fictionalized its presentation here. "Mike Robertson