If there's an Oscar race that might be worth following this year, it's the one for Best Animated Feature. Out of nowhere, The Secret of Kells, an enchantingly old-fashioned Irish upstart about a medieval boy monk who dreams of illuminating sacred books, has tucked itself into an already juicy lineup that features Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Up. Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) is a carrot-topped lad possessed of more imaginative brio than can be contained by the cloistered life he leads under the sternly over-protective eye of his disillusioned uncle, the Abbott (Brendan Gleeson). A peppier old mentor (Mick Lally) dispatches Brendan on a character-building journey through a forest full of shape-shifting menace, protected by one of those Irish elf-girls who doubles as a helpful white wolf in the struggle against marauding Norsemen. Directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, this mostly hand-drawn film is full of reverence for the power of the word, and also intoxicated with color, shapes, and patterns derived from medieval art, combining to form an exquisitely etched riot that evokes the gaudy abandon of Klimt. The sensibility leans more to Brothers Grimm than Team Disney: The only uplift we're offered is the sight of a boy tripping out on adventure. Brendan couldn't care less about the Mouse House's great god Self-esteemhe's too busy becoming competent, which is the same thing as growing up.
April 2-8, 2010