Did you know Disney (or one of its subsidiaries) has won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature fourteen times since its inaugural debut in 2001? That means seventy percent of all Oscar-winning animated films now fall under the Disney umbrella. From Pixar to Walt Disney Animation, the company is a tour-de-force in the realm of the animated motion picture. Who then could hope to rival them?
Enter Cartoon Saloon, a small yet mighty animation studio based in Kilkenny, Ireland. Each of their four feature films have been nominated for Best Animated Feature since 2010 – an impressive feat for a new and upcoming studio. It’s from this batch that Wolfwalkers came to be, sprung from the minds of directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart. The film has raked in nominations in animated categories at the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and the Academy Awards, sending Cartoon Saloon to new heights and stardom. In an industry staked out by Disney and other high-class competitors vying for the eyes and wallets of families everywhere, Cartoon Saloon has made a name for itself by creating great art.
Despite their success, the directorial duo at the head of Wolfwalkers, Moore and Stewart are as down-to-earth as one can get. They are following up on what is undoubtedly a nerve-wracking streak of acclaimed films at a relatively young studio, yet play it off with casual collectedness. To Moore, who co-founded Saloon in 1999, Wolfwalkers’s nomination was welcome news. “It’s a relief not to break the streak with the previous movies, both getting a lot of recognition in that way,” he said during our exclusive interview. “It’s gratifying because we worked on it with a big team for a long time, and everyone worked really hard. You just never know how these things are going to go down when you release them.”
Cartoon Saloon has established itself as deeply inspired and driven by Irish culture. When asked how their film stands out from other 2020 animated features, Moore joked that “It’s Irish” – but it’s true. The third in a spiritual trilogy that also consists of The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, Wolfwalkers brings life to a unique story that speaks to a specific cultural context. “In the same way that Soul is unique to a New York culture, Wolfwalkers is unique to an Irish culture,” said Ross Stewart. “You’ve got to write about what you know and what has inspired you, so that’s where we come from.”
The connecting lines between these sometimes foreign stories and wider audiences are what lie in front of the film’s extravagant, inspired narrative. “You can follow the human story, which is universal, and then the backdrop can be quite specific. You don’t necessarily need to know the specifics to be able to connect to it and follow the story. Like again, I don’t know much about the New York jazz culture or jazz scene or anything like that, but I still follow the human story. And that’s what it’s all about.” Tomm Moore jokingly found another point of relatability in Soul; “We know all about midlife crises.”
Likening their own exploration of Irish folklore to that of Studio Ghibli’s depiction of Japanese culture, Moore said, “[Hayao Miyazai] has this whole animist Shinto worldview that he’s drawing on from his own culture. I don’t know much about that, but I enjoy Ponyo, [My Neighbor] Totoro, and Princess Mononoke. They all seem to have that same cultural backdrop, but there’s a universal story to it.” In bringing life to an underrepresented culture on screen, Wolfwalkers is able to create universal entertainment while popularizing what have long been tales close to the hearts of the directors and animators at the studio.
The film shares more in common with Ghibli than just its interest in depicting a distinct cultural experience. While the filmmakers were aware and wary of the parallels that would be drawn between Wolfwalkers and Miyazaki’s 1997 animated epic Princess Mononoke, they did not express any conscious influence from the thematic content of Ghibli, despite their similarities. “With the themes, I don’t know. Tom and myself were very interested in environmentalism and animal rights and lots of similar things from teenagers,” Stewart said. “I think it’s only natural that if you’re passionate about something, that comes into the theme of your work, whatever your art form is.”
Environmentalism is very clearly an important topic to the two – especially Moore. His work, including Wolfwalkers, largely acts as a commentary on human-nature interaction. “I think it’s the topic of our times,” he said. “There’s an interesting book I was reading at the moment called The Great Derangement, and it’s about how art hasn’t tackled this enough. We’re living through this huge, scary hyper object of the climate collapsing around us and the destruction of the biosphere, and yet not a lot of art is talking about it.” While his passions bring this theme into his work, it’s far from always an intentional inclusion; “For me, I think it’s a preoccupation that isn’t front and center. It’s not the main thing that the movies are about, but it’s definitely during the background of all that.”
Moore’s environmentalism work extends beyond that of just passive commentary in his otherwise unrelated films. Leading up to the release of Wolfwalkers in 2020, Moore co-directed a short with Fabio Erlinghäuser for Greenpeace entitled There’s A Monster in my Kitchen. According to Moore, a lot of the same crew worked on the short, making it “like a continuation from a lot of this – from what we were doing on Wolfwalkers.”
The short was obviously a passion project for the director, as he went into even more detail. “It’s a bit sad because I mean, it’s about modern deforestation in Brazil, and the jaguar is the big, charismatic megafauna that is symbolically in danger. But he’s just symbolizing all the wildlife that’s in danger – also ourselves as well.” Despite sharing similar messages with Wolfwalkers, Greenpeace’s There’s a Monster in my Kitchen is meant to take place in the present day – a sad reality for Moore. “The themes in Wolfwalkers are still relevant, sadly, even though our movie is set hundreds of years ago.”
The modern relevance of Wolfwalkers brought a mix of emotions from its directors, but helped cement it within the current cultural zeitgeist. “We were wondering if some of our things would be a little bit irrelevant [once we finished the film] because you would hope that society would progress and that humanity would learn a few lessons,” Stewart said. “But sadly, there has been the rise of the kind of autocrat that stokes fear in the hearts of the people in order to control them. There’ve been strong, right-wing leaders popping up all over the place since we came up with the idea.” Political relevance aside, the film event drew surprising parallels to the state of modern climate; “And then, of course, the [Amazon Rainforest] being on fire as well. That was one thing we definitely didn’t foresee at the start.”
The modern parallels weren’t all bad, though. “Something else we didn’t foresee, which I’m happy about, is that a lot of young LGBT people have seen themselves in Robyn’s journey and in Robyn and Mebh’s friendship,” said Moore. “I think that’s a positive thing that we might not have predicted at the start. When we made Robyn a girl, that wasn’t foremost in our minds. We did realize during production that it might be read in that way, and I was surprised how strongly it was read that way.”
The increased visibility of “young strong female activists like Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai” was also one that surprised Stewart. “That was one thing that we couldn’t have foreseen, which was a welcome relief as well – to see that there were young women taking to a global stage to fight for civil rights or environmental rights or justice and that they were being listened to. That was really welcome. So it’s not all bad news, I suppose.”
Between its timeliness and craft, Wolfwalkers’s place in the 2021 awards season is well deserved and has earned the studio a number of firsts. Especially in the BAFTAs where it stands against Onward and Soul marking Cartoon Saloon’s first appearance in the animated line-up, Wolfwalkers most strongly shines among the competition thanks to its one-of-a-kind aesthetic and visual style. “I suppose the one thing that makes us stand out is that all the other competitors are in a CG world apart from Bombay Rose, which is hand-painted,” said Stewart.
For both directors, the film’s 2D animation is at the center of its identity. “The story was conceived to be hand-drawn, so everything that we came up with, we were imagining in this medium,” Moore explained. “It wasn’t adapted from a book or wasn’t something that might have been live-action or stop motion – we came up with it, as hand-drawn animation artists and directors, to make in this medium.” The visual style also helped to lend a certain tone and vibe to its story, invoking the sense of a storybook fairytale. Stewart pointed to this as a direct inspiration for the flattened perspective; “There’s a kind of a classical element to the story, the fact that it’s set in 1650. The fact that it has an old-world fairytale vibe to it makes sense for it to be in this timeless art style.”
Furthermore, the 2D aesthetic made possible a large portion of the visual cues that played into the story’s thematic storytelling. “From the very start, Tom and I were envisaging visual language that would be so much easier to do in 2D than in CG or 3D, like playing around with flat perspective – making the town like a maze, with woodcut-style effects, and the forest being very scratchy lines. I mean, it would actually be really hard to try and get that look across in a CG film.”
This is a film that could not ever be made in a different way than it was originally conceived. The directors had strong feelings on the current wave of live-action remakes, even if Wolfwalkers wasn’t on the list of contenders for a potential live-action re-imagining. “I just don’t like to trend towards making live-action versions of animation because I think it undermines both mediums. It doesn’t play to either medium’s strengths,” Moore said. In trying to illustrate the futility of switching mediums so drastically, Stewart drew a comparison to an animated, cartoon version of Silence of the Lambs, which was met with excited approval from his co-director, who added his own Muppet-themed twist; “Buffalo Bill! He would be Fozzy Bear. I guess Miss Piggy would have to be Clarice Starling.” And yet Stewart’s point was clear; “I would like to see a comedy version of Silence of the Lambs, but doing an exact remake?” There’s no point, really.
Fully embracing its medium, Wolfwalkers is but another step in what some see as an animation Renaissance. Where CG animation has dominated the theatrical landscape for years with few exceptions, films like Into the Spider-Verse, Klaus, and now Cartoon Saloon’s latest have pushed for a more holistic approach to the medium. The advent of new technologies and possibilities are as exciting to Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart as anyone else – if not more so.
“I think animation, the style, and the techniques are limitless now,” Moore said, pointing to studios like Laika making waves by augmenting stop motion with visual effects, pushing tangible animation to new limits. “With CG you can dip your head into 2D visual language, hand-drawn visual language, and then make a CG movie – like Spider-Verse or even the Jerries in Soul, like modern art wire sculptures, or something. So it’s really exciting.” The continual, increasing evocation of 2D imagery is especially exciting to Moore; “I think for a hand-drawn animation, which people had been lamenting the death of for a long time, we’re starting to see a resurgence of people realizing there’s still a lot to do with it.”
The increased diversity in animation and push for new visual styles ultimately stems from larger audiences and increased output. Stewart suggested that the case of diverse, visually interesting animation is not new, but simply more visible with modern technologies and platforms. “I think the fact that you can get on a streaming platform and be instantly accessible to the world is what elevates a lot of those films – that they’re not just stuck in a corner or on the alternative shelf in an old video store or something. They’re immediately accessible,” he said. “A film like Bombay Rose, maybe 30 years ago, might never have been seen outside of India, whereas now it’s on Netflix and the entire world can watch it.”
Similarly, Wolfwalkers is paving the way for animation on Apple’s own streaming service, marking the platform’s push for family content. On the topic, Stewart remarked that it was a massive privilege. “Apple has been amazing at the marketing and publicity that they’ve done and the amount of weight that they’ve been able to put behind Wolfwalkers. If we compare it to when we released Secret of Kells, we were really trying to even get posters or our publicity out there. Whereas Apple, they’re just so amazing and have such ways that they can paint the side of a skyscraper in Manhattan and they can put us on billboards and bus shelters all over North America.”
He also said that Apple’s marketing has also helped the film reach international audiences at a larger rate than their previous films; “We have great distributors worldwide that are helping to put Wolfwalkers out there. It’s really fantastic, because now we can see who watched [the film] and enjoyed it. You just need to look at the different languages of people who are praising Wolfwalkers to realize how far it’s getting out. Fantastic.”
The global reception of Wolfwalkers has only been enhanced by the global pandemic, combining the viewing experience with that of online discussion. “It’s surreal,” said Stewart. “Everything, all the responses, everything is all via Twitter and email. So there’s nothing real or tangible there, you know? So the nomination could come and go, and it’s just like, Oh well, I guess that happened then.” The cancellation of award ceremonies, festivals, and premiere screenings only furthered this feeling for the directors, but it has yet to dim their spirits. “It’s all just imaginary. It could all be fake. You know, we never know. Anything.”
Even as their film reaches new heights and breaks barriers for the studio and animation, their minds lay beyond dreams of golden statues. “There hasn’t been any moment where the whole crew could come together and go, look at what we did, or celebrate or anything like that,” Moore pointed out, in reference to the toll of COVID-19 on production and awards season. Clearly a somewhat sore subject, Stewart shared a similar view, saying “We still have an idea to have a wrap party when the whole thing is over, but who knows when that will be. I mean, half the crew might have moved out of Ireland or given up animation.” The ever-cheerful Moore quickly replied, “let’s hope they’re at the same retirement home or something.”
Unfortunately, Wolfwalkers exists at such a point in history that even the cast and crew can barely distinguish the end of a project. While widespread vaccination may soon restore a certain level of normalcy to Hollywood and future award seasons, the films and filmmakers of 2020 will surely be looked upon in a much different light. As soon as theatrical releases become safe, one can expect Ross Stewart and Tomm Moore to happily be joining audiences at the local cinema. “That would be the hopeful thing. Everyone would be so happy. I’d love to go to the cinema,” said Moore. The allure of congregating and being around others is not lost on Stewart either; “If cinemas are a way to do that, then I think, hopefully, cinemas will be back in business.”
In the meantime, Cartoon Saloon will continue providing top-notch animated entertainment. Alluding to the studio’s future at Apple TV+, Moore referenced an upcoming “big, limited series serial,” saying “I think they’re gonna announce that in a little while. We’re busy with that right now.” Wolfwalkers has opened a number of doors for the studio and has enabled them to find an even wider audience at the behest of bigger budgets. For Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart, and Cartoon Saloon as a whole, the possibilities are endless.