First off, for anyone wondering if this movie is going to pull out a surprise upset in the Best Animated Film category, I doubt it. While it’s stunning to look at — the most successful attempt to bring the style of medieval manuscript to life in animation since Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1961) — it’s a bit rougher around the edges when it comes to the performances and storytelling.

The story weaves real history about The Book of Kells — its probable origins in Iona Abbey, its loss of golden covers, the viking invasions — into a story about Brendan, an enthusiastic young boy with some artistic talent who likes to pal around with the manuscript-illuminating monks at the Abbey of Kells circa 800AD. His very serious Uncle is the Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), and though rumor is that Cellach is a gifted illuminator himself, he is more intent on building a wall to keep out the hordes of Northmen than giving glory to god through decorative writing.

When a legendary illuminator arrives as a refugee from the recently sacked Iona, carrying an incomplete masterpiece of a bible, one which can apparently convert sinners merely through its artwork, Brendan is enraptured. He apprentices himself to Brother Aiden, the erstwhile master, and is soon violating his Uncle’s decree to remain within the walls of the abbey in order to find berries for making ink out in the surrounding pagan forest.

Aisling character from Secret of KellsWhile in the forest, he meets an orphan girl named Aisling (pronounced Ashley), who has the ability to turn into a wolf and control animals. Aisling is Irish for “dream” or “vision” and is also the name of a poetic tradition where the spirit of Ireland appears as a supernatural woman with dominion over nature. This Aisling does indeed have dominion over her forest, though she is overmatched by a dark serpent with a magnifying gem for an eye who dwells underground.

It is Brendan who will have to face this dark serpent, and who must choose between saving the Abbey of Kells from the Viking invaders or completing the Chi-Rho page of the great manuscript. As a parable of a blossoming young artist, the movie is a bit clumsy, but it certainly gets points for the remarkable setting, and for using the real book of Kells as visual development. I dare say many visually-dense sequences of this film more than top their inspiration.

I was able to order this DVD directly from Cartoon Saloon, director Tomm Moore’s production company, which produced the film using various animation studios throughout Europe, and it comes with a sketch personally signed by Moore (€30 for the package, which becomes $47 to the US with shipping). If, despite the singular artistic vision behind the movie, there was any doubt that this is a independent operation, I can personally attest that it is Tomm Moore himself who answers emails sent to the Cartoon Saloon website.

The disc is Region 2, so you’ll need an all-region player to watch it here stateside, or a laptop that has been switched over. Despite being distributed by Buena Vista International, Walt Disney Studios’ international arm, the extras on the disc are a bit underproduced. There’s a reel that one of the animation studios (a Belgian one) put together that has an introduction by director Tomm Moore that sets it up in basics. It’s cool to see how the digital inking and painting process is done, even if I’m not exactly sure specifically what I’m watching. Other pieces could’ve used introductions or, better yet, full commentary. This is especially true of the extended cuts of scenes, which, lacking musical underscore, are too difficult to watch to spot what has changed. Animation fans will nonetheless enjoy seeing the various layers come together in the work reels and extended scene cuts.

The disc’s best bonus feature is probably the inclusion of the short film “Cúilín Dualach” (“Backwards Boy”) an Irish-language short about a baby born with his head on backwards that is Moore’s only other major IMDb credit. “Cúilín Dualach” also features a very distinctive artistic design, but it is a world away from Kells‘. Certainly between these two pieces, I’m excited to see what Moore and his team will do next.

The Secret of Kells opens on March 5th in NYC and March 19th in Boston.

MORE: The Blog of Kells