Wolfwalkers Review: Another One for the Ages

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.

The Kells Conundrum

The Secret of Kells is a fantastic film and easily one of the best made in recent times. It’s highly original, dripping with beautiful animation and stands up to countless rewatching. On the surface, it appears to be the perfect animate feature, so why has it been so hard for it to find the same kind of commercial success that say, Frozen can (outside of the obvious reason of throwing hundreds of millions at it)? I call it the Kells Conundrum and it’s a concept we’re going to discuss today.

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Some Superb Secret of Kells Expression Sheets

Coming via the Art of Animation tumblelog are some wonderful expression sheets from the Secret of Kells. Much the same as the Kim Possible ones I posted a while ago, I love seeing these kinds of things because they give a great insight into a character and on a relatively ‘pure’ level; seeing as they aren’t moving or making an sound. It doesn’t take a genius to see that Brendan is a mischievous little scamp. The poses of him playing with Pangus Ban or Chrom’s Eye clearly show someone who’s having fun. All the same, the sheet with the candle portrays someone who’s clearly up to no good.

Compare them with Aisling’s sheets. She’s jsut as mischievous but in a much more playful and innocent way. The posing does much more work than for Brendan but the effect is the same. We can instantly tell she’s a decidedly more curious character than Brendan; hiding a certain amount but being open and honest all the same. Seeing these is getting me excited for Tomm Moore’s next feature; The Song of the Sea.

I’ll admit it, this one absolutely kills me 🙂

 

A Character’s Style Doesn’t Mean You Need To Follow In Their Footsteps

Character Sundays is probably going to take a break until the New Year. Sadly, school deadlines have sapped the necessary time to write a decent post these past few weeks, so there’s no point in doing a half-assed job on something you really like.

Instead, today, here’s a sketch that was posted a good while ago by Jovanna Davidovich on her blog.

Whether it really is the case that Breandan’s design was influenced by these two is up for debate, but I would hazard a guess that the resemblance is certainly striking.

The interesting thing is that Kim Possible and the Secret of Kells share practically nothing in common except Brendan! He’s a great example of how you could potentially use something as inspiration and move in a completely different direction.

Just something to keep in mind 🙂

The One and Only Reason We Don’t See More Diverse Animated Films

 The Secret of Kells most definitely counts as diverse animation.

On Sunday, Nora Lumiere posted a very passionate call to arms with a wonderful post that expounded the very many areas that we have yet to see in theatrical animated form. Far from a wistful wishlist, it’s a well thought out look at the various genres and styles that are rare or unheard of in animated form.

Hinting on the success of Tangled’s “painterly” style, Nora rattle off style after style that could easily be used on a theatrical scale today thanks to modern technology.

The only caveat with her post is that she is speaking for theatrical animation. We already see plenty of diversity in shorts for the simple reason that they are inherently more independent examples that are created at the whims of the animator themselves. Nora touches upon one reason why we don’t see more diverse animated films (emphasis mine):

It’s time to dare to push the animation envelope and break out of the children’s toy box.  Forget about box-office profits for a minute, hire some innovative scientists and adventurous animators to research new artistic software.

Ah, therein lies the dilemma. As much as we like to think of theatrical animation as an artistic market where the dreams of the artist make it to the silver screen, that is the view that is presented to the great unwashed masses. who truly believe that Hollywood is a “dream factory”.

Not to say that Nora’s post does not acknowledge this, it does, however the fact remains that no matter how right she is, unless there is enough (notice I said enough, not any) money in it, the main studios won’t touch it.

The Big 6 will only ever play within a safe set of boundaries when it come to films because they are incredibly risk averse, and justifiably so. If you were coughing up in the region of $500-600 million (including promotion/marketing) you’d be making princess movies all the time too.

That’s the current problem with the way things are set up at the moment. Independent, inspiring and mould-breaking movies are well within arms reach. Sita Sings the Blues was done by one person, ONE! Why on earth don’t we see many more films like that? The simple answer in this case is that Nina Paley busted her butt and her bank account to get the film made and released. There aren’t too many people who are willing to make that kind of commitment, let alone do it regularly.

Since cost/risk is arguably the main problem when it comes to genre-defying films, there is a logical argument that subsidies could be a potential solution. This is true, certainly in the case of The Secret of Kells, which benefited from a few grants from the European Union and tax credits from the Irish government.

Such subsidies are the sad reality of the style of films that Nora calls for. They are too risky for mainstream, commercial studios, but they clearly have more than enough potential to succeed based on their many merits.

That is the reason why we don’t see more diverse animated films. The unholy mix of risk and cost which combine to make most films that are outside the mainstream too much of a hot potato. Hopefully in the future, as traditional distribution shenanigans break down, we will see more daring films that push the envelope.

Irish Week: Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day Responsibly, Watch The Secret of Kells

It’s that time of the year again, when everyone pretends to be Irish and the real Irish milk it from the American tourists for all it’s worth. St. Patrick’s Day is on Thursday so until then, this post is part of a series on Ireland and Irish-related animation. You can browse the full series here.

Today’s the day and while I would have liked to have written this yesterday, I could not, so I am writing it this morning before the day begins (that sounded poetic…). It is hard to believe that two years after it was released in Ireland, we are still talking about this film, it is a testament to how much it has resonated with audiences around the world. So much so that I wrote a post about it a while back.

Anyways, what better way to celebrate Ireland and Irishness than a nice Irish film eh? And if you’ve already watched it, watch it again, you might discover something you may have missed the last time around.

PS:

CORNED BEEF AND CABBAGE IS NOT IRISH!

Weekly Weblinks: Part Deaux

This post is really should have been done earlier, but school and work aside, there just wasn’t time until now. I am always on the lookout for new and exciting blogs to follow as well as interesting posts to share and without further adieu, here’s a few I came across this week.

Blogs

Bleeding Pixels

The blog of Dave Johnson, who provides regular updates on the goings on in animation with some personal commentary. One to follow.

The Cartoon Cave

Written by Pete Emslie, one of the old-school cartoonists of this world. it contains tons of awesome sketches and illustration among posts on old comics and animation. Worth reading for the pictures alone but Petes personal take on things makes it all the better.

Posts

Hanna-Barbera, the Missing Theme Park

Lisa K. Berton takes a look at Hanna-Barbera’s attempts to enter the lucrative themepark market and how their presence has been declining as of late.

Animazing Amation: The Secret of Kells

A review on the Late to the Theater blog, which focuses on films available through instant streaming that reinforces everything that has been said about this film and how excellent it is. Worth reading and serves as a great reminder that The Secret of Kells is available in Netflix.

The Longevity of The Secret of Kells

It’s no secret among those who know me that I am a huge fan of The Secret of Kells, and not just because it’s Irish! I’ve already made my thoughts known in my review, which I wrote for Asifa-East’s Exposure Sheet way back in July 2009. What I’m posting about today is that the film is still making the rounds in US cinemas, in fact it is returning to New York’s IFC Center on August 14th, over a year after it premiered there.

What makes this incredible, year-long run even more extraordinary has been the unprecedented marketing campign, that is to say, the lack of one. The film was released in Europe in spring of 2009 and received the usual advertisement. However, such a campaign would have been prohibitively expensive in the US. The market is too big and crowded by the ususal suspects in California.

There was some talk about bringing the film to the States and things really got going when distributor GKids (the fine folks behind the New York international Children’s Film festival) entered the film for Academy Award consideration. The news that it was shortlisted for nomination gave the film a huge boost, suddenly people wanted to find out how a film they’d never heard of before was conisdered for an Oscar.

Thanks to its qualifying run in Burbank and of course, the Academy Awards themselves, the film was assured national showings of some sort. What has sepereated Kells from other independent films has been the potency of people’s word of moouth. OK, sure you have superfans like myself telling everyone to go see it, but in addition to that, I am pretty sure that every single animator/illustrator in the country has gone to see it and told all their friends to go see it to.

This type of promotion has been the key to the film success statewide. Well, that and the fact that it really is an amazing film. People listen to their friends and family more than anyone on TV or in the newspaper and The Secret of Kells is proof of that.

The film was released on DVD last year in Ireland (and sales received a very welcome boost with the Oscar nomination) and will be released on Blu-Ray and DVD in the US later this year and will undoubtedly make its way into a high percentage of those who saw it at the cinema.

The Secret of Kells is proof that you do not need to spend massive amounts of money to have a successful film. Sure the money doesn’t flow through the box office as quickly as it does for a blockbuster, but it does flow for longer, far longer and the fact that The Secret of Kells is still being talked about 2 years after it was completed is proof that it is better to be a slow burner than a bright flash.