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.

Animation Articles: May 3, 2020

A selection of the best animation articles including news, opinions, and features from around the world for the week beginning the 3rd of May, 2020.

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People I Respect: The Irish Guys

This is the second in a series of posts in which I explain why I respect certain people in the animation industry and why you should do the same.

Paul Young and Tomm Moore Via: IMDB

Cathal Gaffney and Darragh O’Connell Via: Brown Bag Films

Yup, I’m shoehorning four lads into this post, but with good reason, for without them, the Irish animation scene would look quite different than it does today.

The name Cathal Gaffney may not ring much of a bell with you but he is someone I have a lot of respect for. Together with Darragh O’Connell, Cathal founded Brown Bag Films, based in Dublin and has had tremendous success over the last 14 years including not one but two Academy Award nominations. Both men have worked hard to promote the indigenous industry within Ireland as one that has a lot of potential for long-lasting prosperity.

Tomm Moore and Paul Young started Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenny back in 1999 and since then, they too have found tremendous success with the crowning achievement being the Academy Award nomination for their feature, The Secret of Kells, which itself was a remarkable achievement considering that it was only shown in one cinema prior to nomination!

Why do I respect these four guys? For one, they helped start animation studios in Ireland when the industry was next to non-existent and have grown them into internationally-recognised companies that work with such large global players as Nickelodeon/Viacom and Disney.

Even more admirably, all four have managed to grow businesses at a time when Ireland has seen one of the worst recessions in the Eurozone, which is no mean feat! All four are also as ambassadors for Irish animation around the world and is continually promoting the industry at home and abroad.

For this and more, Cathal Gaffney and Darragh O’Connell, Tomm Moore and Paul Young are four guys I respect.

Irish Week: At Least The Irish Government Recognises The Cultural Value of Animation

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.

Via: Brown Blog Films

What you see above is the real deal, sent to both Tomm Moore (Cartoon Saloon, The Secret of Kells) and Nicky Phelan (Brown Bag Films, Granny O’Grim). By the sounds of the respective blog posts, it was nothing short of a complete shock for both invitees.

Now St. Patrick’s Day is a huge deal for the Irish government because unlike any other country, March 17th is for the Irish and the Irish alone (everyone’s Irish for a day, etc, etc). As a result, the government and the country have long realised that they have been given this extraordinary opportunity: a whole day to market Ireland to the entire world without interference from other (non-catastrophic) events. In fact, the combination of St Patrick’s Day and the opening of NCAA March Madness is seen by some (including my boss) as a perfect storm of events.

You’d think that for the Irish Government and the embassies and so forth that this would be a great day of relaxation and celebration. Not so, I was talking to a guy from the Irish Embassy in Washington DC last year and he told me in no uncertain terms that St. Patrick’s Day is by far the busiest day of the year, when everyone is frantically organising things, meeting people doing interviews, etc. So it would seem that the only civil servants getting a rest are the ones at home!

In line with the various ‘promoting’ activities that the Irish government does is the now-traditional White House meeting, where the President of the United States (POTUS) presents the Taoiseach (prime minister) with a bowl of shamrocks (interesting note: it was George W. Bush who began this custom, before, it was just a plain ol’ handshake).

Afterwards there is the reception and dinner for the festivities where I’m sure there are many fine congressmen and senators who attend to whoop up their Irish heritage. Sadly many Irish-Americans are ignorant to the simple fact that corned beef and cabbage just isn’t an Irish dish. For some, their entire world falls apart when I inform them of this.

As the entire day is one to promote Ireland and Irish culture, it is delightful to see that two animators are included. The government could easily have chosen a few poets, singers, artists and so forth to attend (and probably have in the past) but they didn’t. Surely both invitations are a sign that the Irish government has recognised the ability of animation to transcend borders and cultures and to promote Ireland in a positive light to the world. Both animator’s Academy Award nominations last year have no doubt helped lead to tomorrows event.

Hopefully this is not the last time we see Irish animators being invited to the White House although I think we’re off to a great start.

Irish Week: Why Everyone Ought to Read An tEachtaire

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.

Via: Leabhar.com

For those of you who aren’t Irish, the title of this comic won’t mean a thing. For those who are and who had Irish hammered into passionately taught to them, they know that a tEachtaire means messenger in Irish.

So who would happen to be the messenger in an Irish comic? Why St. Patrick himself of course!

The comic in question is written by Colmán Ó Raghallaigh and illustrated by…….Tomm Moore! It centres around the life of St. Patrick as he is kidnapped from Wales as a young lad and forced to mind sheep on a mountain. After he flees, he has a series of dreams where the Irish call him back to teach them the Gospel. Patrick does so and spends the rest of his life converting the heathens pagans into Christians.

That particular version of the story is a bit boring for a comic, so Ó Raghallaigh has spiced it up a wee bit with a focus on the drama and some marvelous illustrations by Moore. There are plenty of displays of agony, torment, confrontations and Celtic imagery, as can be seen below.

It’s not overly long, although as you get into the story, length become rather irrelevant as your mind begins to wander as the illustrations come to life inside your head. Both authors have managed to create a very cohesive comic that simply could not be anything but Irish in origin.

I found my Irish had become rather rusty after a few years away from home although there is an English translation available so you’re not left completely in the dark.

I must say it was a very pleasant surprise to find this under the Christmas tree (kudos to my girlfriend for knowing me better than I know myself) and I found it re-awakened an awareness that Ireland has a rich and varied history that is more than capable of being translated for modern audiences.

Would You Like To Win A Bunch of Incredible Original Artwork?

Who wouldn’t, right?

Well, Australia’s favourite son (the real one), Elliot Cowan is currently running a competition based on his multiple award winning all-conquering Boxhead and Roundhead shorts.

To win, all you need to do is answer a ridiculously simple question posted on the competition site before the April 5th deadline.

Now, I need to start clearing some space on the walls for the impending addition to my art collection 😛