The ‘Irish Miyazaki’ on the Animated Masterpiece That Deserves to Win the Oscar
Irish directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart on the beauty of ‘Wolfwalkers,’ the animated movie that could beat Pixar to the gold.
It isn’t often that two Academy Award-nominated directors celebrating their biggest film yet make a point of thanking their interns. But Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart of Cartoon Saloon, the Irish animation studio behind the Best Animated Feature-nominated Wolfwalkers, spend unprompted minutes in conversation crediting the two apprentices whose artwork defined major swaths of the film. So here’s a hat tip to Federico and Salomé: Without them, the most stunning animated feature of the year—the movie that should win the Oscar on Sunday, though it’s up against the trophy-sweeping Pixar juggernaut—would be less than the hand-drawn masterpiece it turned out to be.
Wolfwalkers is the final installment in the rich folklore trilogy that began with 2010’s Secret of Kells, the film that earned Moore (dubbed the “Irish Miyazaki” and director or co-director of all three) and his Kilkenny-based animation studio their first Academy Award nod. His films are passionate about reclaiming Irish cultural history. They are steeped in pagan legends about wolves, fairies and selkies, while casting a critical eye toward the injustices of Ireland’s real colonial history. Wolfwalkers connects lost myths to history with persuasive emphasis. For a people to be cut off from their folklore, it argues, is to lose identity and a freedom sometimes impossible to recover.
The movie follows a young English expatriate named Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) living in 17th-century Ireland under Cromwellian rule. The town she resides in (with her loving but overprotective father, voiced by Sean Bean) is an emblem of life under the English “Protectorate.” Drained of life and color, every thatched house, portcullis, stone wall and tower is rendered in thick black lines, right angles, and rigid, almost geometric compositions. The town is a living cage, in sharp contrast with the woods just beyond its borders.
There, among the greenery and yellow sunlight, the very lines defining every leaf seem to breathe on their own. This is the domain of the wolves, a favorite target of Oliver Cromwell’s in his drive to “tame” Ireland. Lost amid the trees one day, Robyn meets Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a teeth-bared ball of red curls and puppy-like energy. She is a “wolfwalker” who transforms into a young wolf whenever her human form is asleep, as feral and free as Robyn’s life is constrained and repetitive. Their two worlds, of course, clash in ways that bring the two girls together in sweetly observed depictions of childhood friendship. But their story also works to denounce not just the cultural erasure inherent to colonialism, but the environmental destruction it wreaks as well.
It’s a film unlike any ever made in the U.S., though strikingly resonant with our stateside politics in a time of extreme polarization. (It’s available to stream on Apple TV+ now.) The Daily Beast spoke with Moore and Stewart about the making of the film, its themes and politics, and the current golden era of Irish animation.
I have to say, with Wolfwalkers, you guys really saved the best of the trilogy for last.
Moore: Oh, that’s nice to hear. Imagine if it was the other way! Each one is getting worse and worse and this is the worst one.
Stewart: “Please don’t make a fourth film.” [Laughs]
Can you talk about the inspiration for the art and themes of Wolfwalkers and what this movie represents to you both?
Moore: This is the most collaborative film I’ve made because Ross and I co-directed. It was totally 50-50 on it from the beginning. We came up with the idea together, the purpose, and filled it with things that we were passionate about like habitat destruction, species extinction, breaking down the polarization that’s going on in society by using the metaphor of the English and pagan Irish. Those are the things that, for me, make this more—I’m not gonna say less personal, but definitely a more collaborative project. At every stage of the production, different departments were asked to be artists and filmmakers as well as technicians. So I think that’s what makes this one special for me.
Stewart: And then the inspiration for its themes, we were just, I suppose, inspired by our own personal life stories and then also by what we can see in the news. Things that Tomm and myself are super passionate about, like what he mentioned. But then visually, we would have been inspired by 17th-century woodcuts of the time during Cromwell’s colonization of Ireland—or should I say “invasion” of Ireland. There wasn’t really colonization. And then old classic films like 101 Dalmatians and Robin Hood, that classic era of Disney. And graphic novels, kids’ book illustrations. Two illustrators that we worked with, Emily Hughes and Cyril Pedrosa, were huge inspirations for the look of the Forest, the energy that’s in the trees and the plants. And then we would have been inspired by films like Princess Kaguya and the graphic pencil treatments of that expressive scene when she runs out of the house. And then as Tom was saying, it’s very collaborative. So every time a new artist would come in, they would bring their own inspirations and show it to us and bring their own energy and life to the scenes or the sequences.
Moore: I mean, Ross and I had started the character designs ourselves. But there was a young guy named Federico who was just doing his internship with us, and we just loved the way he drew. He ended up being a massive hand in doing the final designs, designing worlds and stuff. That kind of keeps it rich, you know? Other artists and younger artists bring something to us and then you learn from them.
Stewart: Yeah, there was another intern, Salomé Hammann, a French girl. She came in with this really, really bizarre, like, beautifully bizarre portfolio. And we were like, she’s absolutely so talented but we don’t know how she can fit into the production of Wolfwalkers. So we decided to let her try and draw some of the old carvings that would be all over the wolf home as well. And she did such a good job that she basically designed all of the carvings for the entire film. I think she was only here for six weeks or something. And her artwork is all through the film and everyone was copying her artwork then for every single background.
Moore: That’s what it was like with Fede, too. I always like to use wild cards. I like seeing a portfolio of somebody where it’s like, if I were to draw a circle, they would draw a square or something. It challenges you and pushes it to another direction.
Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and now Wolfwalkers depict Irish cultural history in an uncommonly authentic light. Why is drawing on that history—in this case the 17th-century Cromwellian invasion—and on ancient folklore important to you guys?
Stewart: Part of the reason why we set it in that time of Irish history is because, number one, there was a huge environmental impact from the Cromwellian invasion in that vast swathes of Irish forests were cut down. And he came with a concerted effort to wipe out the wolves in Ireland because they were a symbol of how wild and untamed this colony of the British Empire was. So he came over with a definite extinction in mind, which fit in with the story and the themes of what Tomm himself wanted to tell.
So it was the perfect era, but then also there was this huge contrast and conflict between the older Irish way of life and this new colonial way of life. There were Puritans coming over with a very, almost Taliban-type view on life. Cromwell even canceled Christmas a couple years after! They were so anti-fun and [all about] order and control, probably because they viewed it as a way to be more godly. But the older, pagan Irish way of life was much more free and wild and much more connected to nature. And it was rooted in living as part of this natural ecosystem, whereas Cromwell’s country had the idea that they had dominion over nature. So it seemed like the perfect historical place and time to set it in.
Moore: There's a deeper kind of overall melancholy across the three films when I look back on them as well. A sense of a kind of lost connection to nature and the connection to our own culture. There’s a sense that there was a golden age, like we tried to represent in Secret of Kells, where there were people from all over the world coming to Ireland. And Ireland was kind of leading, visual-art wise at that time with the manuscripts. That was being lost.
And then the same thing with Song the Sea. It was a little bit about the fact that the selkies represented a certain loss that was happening in the country, even just in terms of like the Celtic Tiger at the time. The country was becoming prosperous and I think a lot of our culture was kind of commodified for tourists and being looked at as something cheesy or embarrassing rather than part of our identity. I kind of thought that the stories and songs that we talked about in Song of the Sea were a link to a kind of matriarchal, earlier culture.
I think that continues in a funny way into Wolfwalkers because we kind of talk about the fact that when the wolves are wiped out, a lot of the folklore associated with the wolves was lost. And maybe a spirit, like a wildness was lost. So there was a connection between how humans saw themselves in the world and Irish people saw themselves in the world and the loss of the woods and the loss of the forest. There’s something like a thread between them all.
Stewart: With Song of the Sea, the fairies go off. They leave at the end of the world. And we’re left with the humans and it’s kind of sad because we watched them go off. But in a way the exact same thing happens with Wolfwalkers, it’s just that we are with the people who are leaving, so we see it as a little bit more of a happy ending. But for the people back in the town, it’s a sad ending. If you were to go back into the town, like, their folklore is gone. With the wolves at the end, [the character] Seán Óg is going, “Oh, it’s beautiful music all together.” But he’ll never hear that again. So in a way, there is that loss. It’s just that we don’t hang around with them. So we could have easily ended with a sad ending.
Oh, that is true and deeply sad.
Moore: The three Ds of Irish culture: the church, depression, and the English.
Apart from referencing the woodcuts of the time, the art direction also intentionally reflects the themes of the story in Wolfwalkers. The woods are almost entirely drawn in soft, rounded lines and bright colors, for instance. And within the town walls, everything is more rigid and jagged.
Stewart: Well, the art direction happened very organically along with the story development. So Tom knew from the very, very beginning that we’d have these two worlds. One had to represent wildness and freedom and instinct and another had to represent control and oppression and all that. So immediately you have a visual language that will sit on one side of the fence or the other, and it just naturally evolved from that. Every time we were drawing something associated with the town, we’d have these keywords, like it had to be like a “cage,” it had to show “control,” it had to be “rigid.” We would draw from the inspiration of the woodcuts at the time of the 17th century too, which naturally were very aggressive mark-making and very austere, domineering, black, rigid forms. Everything that we could do to make it seem like that the town is trapping Robin and controlling her and like this is less of a life for her.
Conversely, when she goes out into the forest, it has to represent this wildness and freedom and energy that the wolves and all the forest creatures have, and where Robin can really finally be free and discover herself.
Moore: I remember looking at maps from the time period and noticing how something that was completely wild had been sectioned into little boxes and everything was given a name. At one point, we even had the idea that it was like a map growing out from the town towards the forest. We didn’t quite keep it in the final but it kind of had the same visual idea. Once something was colonized or conquered, it became this very rigid, squared-off kind of space. And contained, very contained.
Stewart: I remember when we were talking about it, it was a good analogy for life in general and also for any art form. The more you try to control it and rigidify it and order stuff, the less freedom and the less creativity there is. There has to be a balance.
We’re also in the middle of a boom in the Irish animation industry. Cartoon Saloon alone has grown from 12 animators to nearly 300. What are some of the pressures and benefits of this moment?
Moore: I’m the grizzled old sea dog of the Irish animation scene now after 20 years. I’ve mostly seen the benefits, you know, because now there is a demand for product. It used to be so hard to finance and get a project made. And now with the streaming services and the firepower that they bring, they bring a new energy to it and they market it with a freshness. You don’t feel like you’re just a tiny part of a big ecosystem. We were the first Irish animated feature with The Secret of Kells, but we were with Disney Ireland and they kind of distributed it but it didn’t do great because we were just part of a bigger market that wasn’t really ready for niche stuff.
I mean, most of the work in Irish animation is work-for-hire. It’s making series for streaming services and traditional broadcasters that are moving into the digital space where there’s a demand for content. But what’s exciting is that a lot of Irish creators are starting to get their own projects and ideas funded, which is really interesting. The industry has largely been supported by the fact that, say, Brown Bag [Films] in Dublin are making huge numbers of episodes for Disney and Netflix and stuff. But as much as that’s happening, more and more young directors in Ireland are directly pitching their ideas to those streamers. And then it becomes an original idea from somebody here, not just work-for-hire. That’s another benefit. It’s only good for us content makers, I have to say.
What about within the walls of Cartoon Saloon? The studio has grown exponentially in the last decade since Secret of Kells. How has that impacted the processes of getting these stories onto the screen?
Moore: [With] storytelling, there’s a smaller group of us that have focused on that. By nature of animation, there’s a lot more people working on creating the artwork than there are creating the stories, but I do think the storytelling has matured from us being able to have more storyboarders and work with writers and consultants from the industry. And there is the fact that I feel like as the team matures and trains the next generation and as crazy wild cards come our way like Fede and Salomé, they also bring an impact and input into the way the movies are made. There’s a new focus, I feel, amongst the young people. I thought we had it [too], but they’re even more so focused on diversity, inclusion, issues of social justice. Obviously environmental stuff, but all kinds of other issues are coming into the stories that people want to tell. I see that [in] the kinds of stories that I see shaping up in the studio.