One of the biggest surprises in recent Oscar history was surely the elevation of an unknown French-Belgian-Irish co-production, made by the little-known Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, into the ranks of Best Animated Feature nominees this past spring; thank God for it, too, because without being able to splash "Oscar Nominee!" across the posters, I doubt that The Secret of Kells would have enjoyed even the fitful U.S. release that it's currently receiving, more than a full year after it opened in its homeland. And that would indeed be a sad thing. The Secret of Kells is a perfectly unique animated film, literally unlike anything else I can think to name. With as many disparate styles of animation there are in the world, between movies and television programs and the internet, it's still impossible to say, "Kells is just like that". You can sort of hedge around, with "it's kind of this thing plus that thing and influenced by that thing," and eventually conclude that what we have here is a one-of-a-kind work of art.

The facts of the matter are these: there exists a manuscript composed sometime around 800 AD by Celtic monks, containing the four canonical Gospels and supplementary material, known as the Book of Kells, after the monastery in which it resided for several centuries. Many people who know what they're talking about better than I do regard the Book of Kells as the pinnacle of the art of the illuminated manuscript, and one of the most important cultural artifacts in the history of Ireland. Since my own familiarity with the Book of Kells is limited to a scattering of full-color plates reprinted in various histories of Western art, I'll defer to the experts on this matter, while agreeing with them that it appears to be so beautiful that it's a little bit insane.

Tomm Moore, who directed the film and came up with the story, used the mere existence of the Book of Kells as the springboard for his story: with no certain knowledge of the book's origins, other than a general consensus that it was begun on the isle of Iona, off the western shores of Scotland, and completed in the Abbey of Kells, Moore saw the opportunity to weave a fantastic narrative of monks running from the spectre of Norse warriors, and of ancient forests populated by monstrous wolves and fairies. The heart of the film is Brendan (Evan McGuire), an orphan boy living in the abbey under the tutelage of his uncle, the Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson). The abbot is a stern man whose only concern is building a wall around Kells to save it from what he sees as an inevitable viking attack; he has no time for the abbey's scriptorium, where a small community of illuminators work on creating beautiful copies of holy texts, though Brendan, suffering from an excess of visual imagination, can't spend enough time learning that trade. This feeling intensifies when a refugee monk, Brother Aidan (Mick Lally) arrives, carrying a white cat named Pangur Bán, along with the most precious of all illuminated books, a half-finished manuscript that he carried from Iona when it was sacked. He enlists Brendan as his assistant in completing the book, and it's in the course of performing errands for Brother Aidan that Brendan first enters the great forest surrounding the town, where he meets Aisling (Christen Mooney), a fairy according to the definition of that word older than Shakespeare's flower sprites.

What Moore, his co-director Nora Twomey, screenwriter Fabrice Ziolkowski, and their collaborators have created is probably the first movie in history to share medievalists and children as its primary audience. Taken as a narrative, it's not hard to be befuddled and frustrated with The Secret of Kells, which skips along nicely as a coming-of-age story until the last 15 minutes seem to rattle apart; this at least was my first response, until I'd had a chance to think about it a moment, and come to the realisation that it's a perfect narrative construct - it's just that it's perfect according to criteria that are about 1000 years old. The Secret of Kells isn't just set in medieval Ireland, it is a self-aware throwback to the medieval folkloric tradition in which character psychology isn't even an afterthought, and "then the quest ended" is all the more resolution and wrap-up that anybody could possibly ask for. Accordingly the movie takes place without much context: it is very deliberately like a fairy-tale in that sense, that it is always about the present moment, and if you don't know exactly what Iona is, or what the hell goes on in that dark cave in the woods, it doesn't matter. It exists in a place defined only in relation to itself, not the world or history: if you've ever read an Arthurian romance, it's roughly the same feeling. This is a brave approach to storytelling nowadays, one that denies our modern love of puzzling out the "meaning" of a plot; the only meaning, in the end, is that the Book of Kells was completed.

Accordingly, the greatest joys of The Secret of Kells are found simply by looking at it; how sensible it is, too, that the filmmakers pay tribute to one of the key works of European illustration through their own visuals, rather than in dialogue. The simplest way to describe the look of the film is that it's meant to look, itself, like an illuminated manuscript; that's inapt at best, but it'll get us started. Certainly, one of the most striking things about the film is the tremendous lack of perspective: it is absolutely flat. The backgrounds the characters appear to occupy the exact same plane; in some overhead views, we are looking straight at the ground but the characters walking around (we should see naught but the tops of their heads) are seen in perfect side-view, like Link in one of the old Legend of Zelda games.

Broadly speaking, the design of the film suggests an illuminated manuscript, in terms of the lines and patterns on objects; and whenever Brendan's imagination runs free, the film drifts into a tiny montage of Celtic knots and curlicues that very strongly suggest the elaborate line-work in the Book of Kells, but this is the closest that the film comes from directly quoting its "source". The characters are, I suppose, somewhat based on the human figures seen in the Book; but they're cartoons, at the same tie. It's hard to explain. There's a very line-driven quality to the character design that suggest Flash animation, but the richness and depth of the coloration is nothing at all like Flash - though it is like the Book of Kells. Here's where we get back to that thing where I could try to triangulate the look of the movie, by listing a lot of things that it's almost like, but that would just be annoying. Do a Google image search; it'll get you close, although none of the images presently available on the internet are the ones I'd have picked to typify the look of the film.

If the film ultimately defies my ability to describe it, then that's just a sign of its magnificent strength. It is, let us never forget, a tribute to the art of drawing; this is far more important than its feints in the direction of Brendan's growing from boy to man, or the hints of mythology presented by Aisling and the dark secrets of the woods, or the fantasy history with its terrifying viking hordes (terrifying in the sense that any good kids' movie has a certain something which is "too scary for children", conveniently ignoring the fact that children love to be scared). A drama about the creation of truly excellent graphic art must be itself a work of truly excellent graphic art above all other dramatic concerns; this is the great achievement of The Secret of Kells. Like its subject, it is full of rich, dense colors; and like its subject, it seems to leap forth perfectly-formed, without precursors. Its greatest joys may finally be those of abstract visual beauty, but those are nevertheless real - and tremendously satisfying - joys.