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Eleven and half years after seeing the first film in Tomm Moore’s Celtic trilogy, The Secret of Kells, it was time to watch the last film in said trilogy. Wolkwalkers tells the story of English girl Robyn Goodfellowe as she grapples with life in the Irish city of Kilkenny where she receives a rather mythical revelation.
Robyn and her father have moved to Kilkenny as part of Oliver Cromwell’s English forces who have subdued the Irish. Cromwell tasked men like Robyn’s father with ridding the land of wolves as a means of making the forests safe for clearing. Robyn is the irrepressible young girl with notions of accompanying her father on his mission laying traps. However, a tragic occurrence during a wolf attack on sheep leads to a chance encounter with Mebh, a wolfwalker. What follows is a journey for Robyn as she navigates a complex web of relationships, responsibilities, politics, and self-introspection
My thoughts on The Secret of Kells, have aged much better than expected; given that they were written by a person with almost twelve fewer years of life experience but with reciprocal levels of over-enthusiasm. From this vantage point, that film has some flaws but nothing one couldn’t expect from a director making the most daunting undertaking of their [then] short career. Wolkwalkers gains from the additional years and experience of everyone involved in the best possible way, and it shows.
Wolkwalkers features the by now recongisable traits of a Moore/Cartoon Saloon feature film in every aspect. Visually, Irish Celtic and pagan mythology make for fertile grounds on which to tell a story. Lush colours lend their depth to the flat backgrounds which propagate excitement, exhilaration, and intrigue to every scene. Thematically, there is a stark contrast between the wild, native Irish landscapes, and the chaotic, urban Kilkenny overtaken by the English in their grey armour.
The animation proves, once again, that 3-D CGI endows a films with a best-by date. The Secret of Kells does not look like it was released in 2009, and undoubtedly in 20 years, Wolkwalkers will not look its age either. While not as fluid as the best and greatest, there is a simple pleasure in the traditional movements of the characters; there are no pretensions here. When called upon, the complexity arrives not in abundance, but with restraint. The film’s crew knew that gimmicks are not needed in this film, but a careful balance between the different elements is, and their care pays dividends. Nice touches such as the subtle traces of the pencil construction lines of the characters hint at the many human hands at work behind every frame; in stark contrast to a Pixar film where every whiff of human skill is buffed and polished out to showcase the latest capabilities of a piece of software.
The music by Bruno Coulais and Kila serve as the foundation for the storytelling experience. The music (and song by Aurora) provide the atmosphere that once again bring the viewer into the story instead of simply providing emotional cues.
The direction does a fine job servicing the story. Co-directors Moore and Ross Stewart are more than happy to let the art and story drive the direction rather than taking a Kubrick-esque approach where direction is everything. As with the animation, there is a restraint with a dash of fun, but when called upon for action scenes, there are ample reserves for a real surprise. The ‘wolfvision’ sequence in particular is praiseworthy for both its concept but also the amount of work that went into it.
Getting down to the nitty gritty, the characters took a while to warm up to. It’s not that they’re inherently cold or flat, but perhaps because at only 103 minutes and with a lot of ground to cover, the film has to get to the point fairly quickly. Robyn’s background is merely stated and I found myself craving more allusions to her past as away of driving her future. Mebh requires much less effort as her mythical origins are clearer, and her interactions with Robyn provide the little spark of interest on which the relationship rests. The Odd Couple this is not, but a getting-to-know-you tale in the finest form of the trope. Robyn’s father plays his part, with a relatable touch of being reluctantly subservient to his job for the benefit of his family. Cromwell makes for an interesting case since his reputation in Ireland differs from other countries but the film demures from playing to the worst of the feelings and opinions of the man. Focusing instead on his religious propriety and its unwelcome place in a land with other beliefs makes for a more universal villain but a less complex one.
There are only two aspects of Wolfwalkers to nitpick as a grown adult casting the critical eye on the film. The first is that the story felt somewhat formulaic and had just one thing too many shoehorned into the allotted running time. Less is sometimes more.
Secondly, I felt from watching Wolfwalkers that the film wears its influences a little bit too clearly. Setting aside the clear similarities to The Secret of Kells, shades of Pocahontas and the Hunchback of Notre Dame emanate from antagonist Oliver Cromwell. Robyn’s story is also uncannily like that of Jake Sully in Avatar among many others. One wonders if such influences are a deliberate hedge or a simple coincidence.
That being said, one influence that is less easy to spot is also one that others often make blatant. Wolfwalkers is arguably the more political, optimistic, family-friendly Irish version of Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki’s ability to influence needs no explanation, but it is nice to see his films being a source of reference for more than just story and animation.
All in all, Wolfwalkers is another winner and coming from someone who was initially pessimistic about the film, this is a good sign that others can be won over as well. Independent film is in an extraordinary period of growth and films like Wolfwalkers make recent news, such as Disney’s announcement of dozens of movies without a shred of originality, all the more insufferable. Wolfwalkers is the kind of film that I, as a parent, want my child to watch with an eye to seeing that sense of wonderment and awe spark in their eyes without having to worry about the pretensions of a brand’s corporate marketing department at work behind the scenes. Eminently worthy of your time, Wolfwalkers is on Apple’s streaming service now.
Many industries lack minority participation and animation is no different. How can the industry do more to increase the voice of minorities in animation and initiate changes now that will improve the situation over the long-term?
The Three Hurdles to Overcome
To understand how to increase the voice of minorities in animation means to understand the problems that are stopping those voices from being heard in the first place. Three hurdles stand in the way of minority voices in animation, and until they are overcome, we are unlikely to see much real improvement.
Too Much Comedy
Comedy dominates animation from pre-school all the way up to big-budget features. It dominates internationally and domestically. To succeed in the animation business is to have a successful comedy under your belt. Only then can you get license to explore, and even then you may only get one chance.
The problem is that comedy sells, and sells big. Comedy has universal appeal and is therefore the most profitable. Any other genre is probably going to come up short. The proliferation of comedy simply leaves little room for much else and unfortunately it’s in other areas where the opportunity to hear minority voices often lies.
Too Much Dilution of Ideas
The creator-driven boom of the early 1990s resulted in many raw and potent ideas reaching the screens of millions. That success eventually became guarded, and networks began to dilute and water down ideas to fit what the audience expected, not what it deserved.
Today, media companies are anemic to risk. Minority ideas are risky for a variety of reasons. So what’s a corporation to do? Risk losing their shirt, or water things down enough to make them palatable to the largest audience possible? As Elizabeth Ito notes, studios need to stop making things for the “suburban families and blogger moms” of the world and modifying ideas to suit. Those groups are the least risky because they can be the least open to new ideas. They are comfortable in their suburban lifestyle, and anything strange is to be approached with caution. They have predictable tastes.
Minorities can have some of the strongest and innovative ideas and artistic creations you can imagine but they often lie beyond the pale of what the groups above expect. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that networks and studios will water down such ideas to fit their intentions. They’ve certainly done it with ‘urban’ art.
American Culture is Asphyxiating
There is a tendency of Americans to perceive the rest of the world as being, well, like America. This is less to do with willful ignorance and more to do with blissful ignorance. American culture is potent in other countries, but is inescapable in America itself.
Minorities often come from immigrant backgrounds if they are not immigrants themselves. American society demands conformity and actively works to stamp out foreign identities; instead reducing it to ‘heritage’ status. To be a minority voice means to speak differently which is often conflated with being foreign.
American audiences believe foreign cultures are exactly like they’ve been led to believe. For example, to be Irish in America means to actually say ‘top o’ the morning’ to people and if you don’t they will say it to you as a form of misplaced well-meaning. To artistically speak with an Irish creative voice in America means to comply with these expectations lest you become unintelligible. To speak as a minority in American animation is to conform to expectations which stifles an individual’s true voice.
What Has to Change
What has to change is not simply a matter of overcoming the hurdles above. Doing so would not necessarily increase it. Many things need to change and they are tied to socioeconomics, demographics, and culture. There is no magic cure, there is no easy fix, and most importantly of all, it will not come quickly.
The Privilege of a Formal Artistic Qualification
To hold any formal qualification is to be privileged. To hold one from a 3rd-level institution is to be especially privileged. Minorities are overwhelmingly over-represented in lower socioeconomic classes but are the least likely to attempt much less attain a university degree. The value of an art degree should not be discounted, but it should not be upheld as the required entrance to an artistic career.
Young minority artists are susceptible to exclusion from art school for many reasons besides financial cost. They may also have lacked the resources throughout their educational career due to underfunding of art programs in public schools. For many, the possibility of even applying for art school is remote.
On top of this the emphasis that studios place in an art degree means that many minority individuals are automatically excluded from consideration for positions. Sure the value of a portfolio is important, but the qualification give you a head start in both skills, and critically, contacts. CalArts is the pantheon of an education in animation thanks to its proximity and relationships with major Hollywood studios. Yet its exclusivity, and eliteness benefit only those who can a) afford it, and b) are fortunate enough to have had years of preparation prior to entry.
Animation programs exist at other institutions, but they are no different. Here in Baltimore, MICA offers an animation program but how many minority students can stomach the $150,000 cost of a degree that doesn’t even touch on housing and living costs?
Student loans play into the picture too. If a minority individual is lucky enough to attend an art school, they are likely to have student loans that must be paid back. The old adage that the majority of journalism graduates work at Starbucks is not so far removed from the truth as one might think. Loans do not have terms that require a carer in the chosen field in order to pay them back. They demand money from any source and many a student in any discipline finds themselves cut off from a desired career because the need for money trumps the ability to wait for the required opportunity.
Studios also perpetuate the situation through internship programs. I’ve personally taken issue with the widespread use and abuse of internships within the animation industry, particularly in New York City. A poor member of a minority (gradate or not) cannot afford to work for free; many wealthier individuals can, and do to their professional benefit.
Until the vanity sheen placed on formal educational qualifications is eliminated, many members of minorities will struggle to carve out a career in art for themselves.
The Urge to Repeat What’s Come Before
Were you excited for the new series of DuckTales? How about the new Looney Tunes shorts? Have you ever noticed how a lot of animated content is recreated or rebooted? The landscape is littered with them and a good half are probably made by Hanna-Barbera trying to resuscitate something they own.
Repeating what came before stifles minority voices because the new entity, regardless of its intentions or crew, will always be framed within the context of the original. Characters can be altered, new storylines written, but the overarching idea cannot. Such ideas are also least likely to come from a member of a minority to begin with.
Recreating old ideas also takes away the opportunity to create something from a new idea. Noelle Stevenson’s reboot of She-Ra may be great and feature a strong LGBTQ+ voice, but how does it compare to Steven Universe and the voice of creator Rebecca Sugar? Stevenson’s series will always be a version of ‘She-Ra’ whereas as Steven Universe is unambiguously Sugar’s.
What Stories Are Being Told
The stories in American animation in particular are primarily middle-class in plot, setting, and tone; reflecting the backgrounds of their creators and target demographics for better or worse.
For the record, the content of the story is not the same as the voice. Disney have made themselves the poster child for tackling stories featuring minority characters in films such as Moana. But does that film tell a Polynesian story with an authentic Polynesian voice or does it merely pay lip service to Polynesian culture with a decidedly American story and American voice?
I firmly believe it is the latter.
American media also continues to tell the same stories they’ve always have. Feature films in particular are notoriously homogeneous in their stories. Superheros and their overt masculinity currently rule the box office roost. Female stories told with a female voice are still hard to come by. TV shows still trot out the same tired cliched formats and if you don’t believe me, Central Park is getting rave reviews.
The story that’s told is about much more than the plot, or the characters, or the setting. It’s about the context. the juxtaposition between The Sopranos and The Wire demonstrate it perfectly. One is a show about a New Jersey mafioso told through the voice of an outsider looking in. In contrast, The Wire is a show about cops and robbers but speaks with the authentic voice of a Baltimorean lamenting the problems in their city. Which show has a better story is debatable, but which show tells it in a special way is obvious.
How to Increase the Voice of Minorities in Animation
The current situation is far from ideal. Minorities are hampered almost every step of the way towards spreading their voice in animation. What can be done to improve things?
Implement Apprenticeship Programs
A good first step would be to implement apprenticeships for younger artists. There is no good reason to force younger artists (minority or not) into school for years on end to get a qualification. Why not train them in the basics on the job and pay them a wage too? If they need classes, their schedule could be adjusted, or a few night classes at a local college would work. They certainly did at Disney in the early years.
Apprenticeships would give minorities the ability to acquire technical skills while still being productive, and reduce the risk they undertake to acquire the knowledge necessary for an artistic career. They would also give many youngsters the leg-up they so desperately need to get a career started and which universities claim to provide but so often do not. With a secure method of attaining skills, a young artist would be better situated to progress their career, and ultimately be better placed to provide their unique voice to a production.
Minorities, and especially women minorities, are challenged in progressing their careers. Studios should be aware of this and be willing to maintain systems and processes that not only encourage them in their careers, but enable them to do so as well. Implementing apprenticeships would be the change that’s need in the education of artists.
Realise That Representation Does Not Equal A Voice
For a long time that continues up to the present day, representation was seen as a way of providing minorities with the encouraging voice they needed to see on-screen. The Simpsons poked fun at the token minority in everything nearly 30 years ago and sadly not much has changed.
The Simpsons also caught the short end of the stick for the character of Apu; said to represent a perpetuated stereotype performed by an non-Indian voice actor. Except Apu was written by a bunch of Harvard graduates and he spoke their voice just like every other character on the show. Apu was never mean to represent Indians, he was merely an Indian character that became a representative of Indian culture on that show.
Merely representing minorities on-screen does them a disservice because such characters speak with the voice of their writers, directors and producers in addition to their actors. To provide representation only is to sidestep the issue when so many crew and backstage roles are not filled with minority individuals making their contributions to a production.
Representation can provide the necessary voice when used in conjunction with other roles behind the screen. Realising this and working to ensure that work behind also permits minority voices to be heard is the challenege.
See Past the Fad
fad: n. A fashion that is taken up with great enthusiasm for a brief period of time; a craze.
Police brutality and racial inequality in the United States are not a fad. They are systemic problems existing for many decades and will continue to plague society for some time to come even if change happens now.
What certainly is a fad however, is the reaction to current events many people are choosing to exhibit. Changing your social media avatar, tweeting in support, even attending a protest or two does not induce change. Change occurs over time, and it can be a long time to boot. Martin Luther King laboured for nine years between the Montgomery bus boycotts and his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in Washington DC. He was dedicated to his cause and put in the hours and energy to achieve change. He kept pushing despite pressure and threats from many quarters to stop. If he was to hold his speech this year, he would have had to start his campaign when Steven Spielberg’s Tintin abomination was released to theaters. Do you even remember when that film came out?
Many corporations and animation studios are ‘standing by’ their black employees but what does that actually entail? Have they always stood by, or are they just exploiting the opportunity being presented as a PR exercise? Further to the point, a single gesture gets a message across but is instantly forgotten. Where is the long-term commitment? More critically, who is going to follow up on the studios in a few years let alone hold them to account if they don’t? As the saying goes, talk is cheap.
To be aware of the failings of the animation industry to appreciate and promote minority ideas and voices is to lament the many many lost opportunities allowed to pass by. Change can come, but it will take time and effort that extends far beyond current events and will require a commitment from more than just the powers that be. It will require seeing past the fad surrounding current events and seeing the long-term future where progress is like a growing child. Day-to-day changes are imperceptible, but over time are readily apparent.
I’d like to end the post on a positive note.The voice of minority creators may not be as loud as it should, but its members who have been afforded the opportunity to speak have roared. Jorge Gutierrez is proud of his Mexican origins and imbues his creations with the soul of Mexican culture. El Tigre and the Book of Life are just two that spoke in his voice with success and appeal. Aaron McGruder used The Boondocks to not only speak in a black American voice, but his very unique black American voice. The result transcended cultures and brought something to many who had never experienced anything like it before. Similarly Noelle Stevenson and Rebecca Sugar brought unique queer voices to their respective TV shows. LeSean Thomas and Ian Jones-Quartey have forged careers for themselves too.
Countless others work behind the scenes and we can’t discount their contributions either, no matter how small.
The shift from monoculture to niche culture affords minorities the opportunity to create animation in a way that’s never existed before. We have to recongise the opportunity in front of us to increase the number of the minority voices we hear within the animation industry. This is not a screed for quotas or enforced participation. It is a plea for the industry to see the ability of minority voices to improve and progress the industry as a whole and to change the status quo for everyone’s benefit.
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