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P
Pa
April 14, 2021

‘A hand-drawn film can go up against a 150-million-dollar CGI Pixar movie’

Sports

P
Pa
April 14, 2021

Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon is ready to put the town of Kilkenny on the map. Taking on the might of international filmmaking powerhouses such as Pixar and Studio Ghibli this awards season, the studio’s latest release, Wolfwalkers, is every inch the cinematic underdog.

It’s a film that has received rapturous reviews from audiences and critics alike, and yet its apparent blanket success continues to bemuse directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart. “It’s mad, isn’t it?” reflects director and illustrator Moore with a shake of his head.

“Maybe people are feeling cooped up in lockdown and it’s just a nice escape in some ways, or maybe it speaks to some contemporary worries about, you know, the environment and the polarisation of society.

“Maybe it’s more topical than we would like it to be. Maybe we wish it was less topical, because it [shows] some of the dark side reflected in today’s world. Donald Trump coming to power and all that stuff has only exacerbated the need for people to see similarities over differences.”

A true labour of love, it’s a project that quite literally drew inspiration from traditional Irish folklore, grounding itself in the pair’s home town of Kilkenny. The vibrant tale of Robyn Goodfellowe, the daughter of an English wolf hunter sent to rid the city of the last known wolf pack — voiced by Miss You Already actress Honor Kneafsey — Wolfwalkers is a 17th-century journey of discovery.

A glorious blend of hand-drawn animation and three-dimensional design, the film follows Robyn as she befriends a young girl named Mebh, a member of a rumoured mystical tribe capable of transforming themselves into wolves at night.

“I think we happened upon something as well, where there hasn’t been enough animated features with two young women as the main protagonists, so I think that’s been a bit of a breath of fresh air for audiences too,” says Moore, who also directed The Secret of Kells and Song Of The Sea.

“Another thing that Thomas and myself were interested in exploring is the idea of speciesism,” continues co-director and illustrator Stewart of the film’s underlying premise. “Maybe now, this might rethink some people’s attitudes towards not just wolves, but wild animals and the wilderness in general.

“Recording the wolves as well, that was pretty hard,” quips Stewart with a smirk. “We lost quite a few sound engineers and sound designers.”

Having narrowly missed out to Pixar’s Soul in the Best Animated Film category at Sunday night’s Bafta ceremony, the Academy Awards is ‘round two’ for the directing duo. “Our old nemesis, Pete Docter,” laughs Moore, of his Pixar-based counterpart and the creative mind behind acclaimed animated feature, Soul. “It started back in 2010, we lost to Up — but that was kind of the first time that we were being recognised. Back then we were a small, tiny studio, so that really was a massive win just to be there.”

Moore’s offering on that occasion was The Secret Of Kells, an animated feature that saw now co-director Stewart jump aboard as an art director. “We sat beside Pete and became friends with him over the years, so the fact that this time we’re seen as a second place or a serious contender is massive,” continues Moore.

“It’s a bit of a bitter thing… You’re like ‘God, it’s so good. We’re nearly the second best!’ you know? It’s been really fascinating to see how independently made, pretty modestly budgeted, hand drawn film can go up against a 150-million-dollar CGI Pixar masterpiece. So yeah, I’m happy that we’re fighting above our weight class.”

With The Secret of Kells and 2014 follow-up feature, Song Of The Sea, both claiming Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature, Wolfwalkers makes it three out of three for the creative pair. Naturally, the feat of exceeding expectation so early on brings with it additional pressure.

“There’s also a weird thing that happens in Kilkenny too — because Kilkenny is a small town in the middle of Ireland,” says Stewart. “It’s been really successful with the national sport, hurling — they win and win and win. And so, when we get nominated, they are like, ‘ah, you’ll win it this time!’ — and they just don’t know the level of competition; it’s not like, you know, winning an All-Ireland. So, we have that pressure as well.”

However, in a year that has seen awards ceremonies cancelled and film festivals — and their cinematic content — moved online, it’s safe to say that Moore has cultivated a fair few opinions of his own when it comes to the wonders of the web.

“The internet’s weird,” he says. “It connects you, and yet, there’s a disconnect with it as well; that’s very strange. I’ve had to banish my phone from my bedroom and stuff like that, because it’s so easy to get lost looking at what people are saying — and then the worst thing is getting involved in Twitter discussions that you’d never get involved in, in real life.

“But because of the pandemic, it’s been the only way for us to check on how people are responding to the movie. We didn’t have any of the slightly more fun and maybe healthier ways — like going to film festivals and meeting audiences and stuff. So, we’re just stuck here, Twitter scraping.”

Wolfwalkers has come a long way in the eight years since the film’s plotline and premise were first fleshed out during the early stages of production. So too has the world of politics, alongside the opinions of the film’s prospective audience.

“I think then, Thomas and myself were thinking about the polarisation in society and bias and xenophobia,” says Stewart. “We were thinking maybe either connected with Ireland — up in the north with the Catholic-Protestant divide — or maybe the whole anti-Muslim thing that was going on at that time.

“But we had no idea that, say, America would be so divided or that Brexit would happen — and then suddenly, there’d be this ‘Brexiteer versus non-Brexiteer’ thing. “And I suppose that’s the gamble,” continues Stewart. “That if you start coming up with a story, you don’t know what the world would be like when you release that story into the world.” Wolfwalkers is available to stream on Apple TV+ now.