From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. You've probably heard of four of this year's five Oscar contenders for Best Animated Feature. There's "Coraline," "Up," "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and "The Princess and the Frog." But the fifth film is largely unknown to American audiences. That's because "The Secret of Kells" is Irish, and it hasn't yet opened here, but Bob Mondello got a sneak peak.

BOB MONDELLO: When I say "The Secret of Kells" harks back to an earlier style of drawing, I don't just mean pre-digital animation. I mean the kind of drawing that monks did in the Middle Ages, those curlicued borders and ornate letters they hand-painted in holy books, Ireland's "Book of Kells," for instance, a ninth-century volume that took many monks many years to illuminate, apparently with an excited 10-year-old apprentice named Brendan looking on.

(Soundbite of film, "The Secret of Kells")

Mr. MICK LALLY (Actor): (As Aidan) Tell me, Brendan, would you like to help me?

Mr. EVAN McGUIRE (Actor): (As Brendan) Oh, yes, please. I help the brothers find quills all the time.

Mr. LALLY: Calm down, calm down, little brother. The book is a beacon in these dark days of the Northmen. Do you want to see the most beautiful page, the one that will turn darkness into light?

MONDELLO: The old monk opens the volume and flips through it to a blank page.

(Soundbite of film, "The Secret of Kells")

Mr. LALLY: It is to be the Chi Rho page.

MONDELLO: Is to be, if they can complete it before the abbey is overrun by Viking barbarians, those Northmen he mentioned. The abbot, who happens to be Brendan's uncle, wants his monks to stop their illustrating and start building protective battlements, an idea that's not popular with the artists.

(Soundbite of film, "The Secret of Kells")

Mr. McGUIRE: (As Brendan) Uncle just wants to protect us from the outside, when the north men come to Kells.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Prepare or meet your doom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) It is not funny. The abbot sees us. He's not happy because we are not working on the wall.

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) Oh, enough of that. What about the books? Does he not find them?

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As character) If there were no books, all knowledge would be lost for eternity.

MONDELLO: This qualifies as a pretty heady idea in a kid-flick world that mostly deals with talking frogs, singing chipmunks and balloon trips. That medieval monks protected knowledge is historical, of course, helped Europe rebuild after the Dark Ages, but you wouldn't want the film to spend all its time on that.

So Brendan slips out into the woods, where he meets a helpful sprite and a nasty monster, giving the animators a chance to play with form and format until the Vikings attack.

(Soundbite of film, "The Secret of Kells")

MONDELLO: The visual style the filmmakers have chosen is striking and quite beautiful at times but deliberately flat, like pictures in a medieval manuscript: no 3-D trickery, no moving backgrounds. Trees are stylized, people geometric. One monk's essentially a curve with a bald patch. And movement is as primitive as in Saturday morning cartoons. When you think that at the Oscars, "The Secret of Kells" is going up against "Up," its chances seem hopeless and probably are.

But, you know, there's something kind of captivating about a film that's been painstakingly drawn to glorify the craft of illustration, that's not all jokes and slapstick and that's comfortable using retro techniques because what else makes sense for bringing to life the gold and scarlet ornamentation in ancient manuscripts?

I confess I actually choked up when that ornamentation came briefly to life in the film's final moments: low-tech but high art, the secret to "The Secret of Kells." I'm Bob Mondello.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from