This animated feature Oscar nominee is worthy of the notoriety even if a fairly predictable story lacks. Set in Ireland during the 9th or 10th century, a walled abbey guards a precious handmade book-in-progress that is a rare deposit of humanity’s knowledge. Brendan, a young boy, eagerly learns about creating it from making ink to drawing detailed illustrations under the guidance of an old master. Searching for rare berries to render special ink, he ventures into the forest against the rules and meets a forest fairy, Aisling, who warily befriends him. His stern uncle, the abbey’s leader, is obsessed with a looming Viking attack to the point where everything else is trivial by comparison. He blindly abuses his authority and even locks Brendan up for working on the book instead of preparing. Events conspire to force Brendan to mature fast despite his young age.
It’s almost guaranteed in a movie that if someone says not to do something then someone will do it. Don’t feed Gremlins after midnight. Yep, they’re fed after midnight. Don’t go into the forest. Holy cow, he goes into the forest. Another example of this movie’s telegraphed plot turns, what are the chances the young boy hero will be ripped to shreds by wolves a third of the way in? If this were a Japanese anime, then perhaps blood would pour.
Nonetheless the setting and central subject matters are unique, interesting, and not typical even for European animated cinema. Rarely are the powers of books depicted in lofty almost mystical terms. Even with magic as a story element, the realities of medieval daily life are dealt with in realistic fashion. The characters, though not very original, face their problems with believable human emotion as opposed to some cartoon way.
What’s absolutely superb is the imaginative often intricate high level of artistry. I was often awed and absorbed by the imagery and continual graphic invention that morphs from scene to scene. Director Tomm Moore’s work is impressive. The animation style is blocky with rounded edges. I was reminded of the old Disney “I’m No Fool” Jiminy Cricket shorts and another where Donald Duck goes to Mathmagic Land and, I believe, encounters an ancient Greek Secret Math Society. But the detail here surpasses those influences creating its own private universe. The story and characters get three and a half stars. But the animation is so cool that it gets four stars as a whole. Seeing this in a theatre on a big screen was a treat. Fans of different kinds of animation should seek this out.