I love animation, and I especially love animation produced by smaller companies with a clear vision. As much as I enjoyed flicks like Zootopia and Moana, I have always been drawn to the various forms of classical animation. But, maybe because I am all too aware of my own lack of artistic ability, I try to recognize it in others. One such studio that has consistently created beautiful works of art is Cartoon Saloon, an Irish animation studio founded in 1999 by Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey, and Paul Young.
According to Cartoon Saloon’s Wikipedia article, the trio was heavily inspired by the animated films “The Thief and the Cobbler” and “Mulan“. In particular, Moore was inspired by the use of indigenous traditional art in Mulan and wanted to do something similar for Irish art. I suppose most people reading this article have seen “Mulan” but may be unfamiliar with “The Thief and the Cobbler,” an unfinished animated film by Richard Williams. “The Thief and the Cobbler” is a film worthy of its own article, but the short story is that this gorgeous, unfinished project went in and out of production for almost three decades. Then in 1993, it was recut and released as the unwatchable “The Princess and the Cobbler.” Still, if you’d like to appreciate the animation as Williams intended, I’d check out “The Recobbled Cut” or the 2012 documentary “Persistence of Vision.”
Cartoon Saloon has produced several impressive films throughout the last two decades, but I think Tomm Moore’s “Irish Folklore Trilogy” is exemplary. The trilogy is comprised of three films: “The Secret of Kells,” “Song of the Sea,” and “Wolfwalkers.” Each film is a splendid tribute to Irish folklore and artwork. These films are an act of love and cultural preservation. Although the stories are temporarily spaced and unconnected, they are bound by Cartoon Saloon’s distinct visual style and deep respect for Irish heritage.
Cartoon Saloon’s first feature film, “The Secret of Kells,” was released in 2009, but given its subject matter (and unique visual styles), I am not surprised that it was in production for ten years. Given how much time, effort, and resources went into creating “The Book of Kells,” I think the time Cartoon Saloon took is fitting.
I would think back to the Middle Ages to put this into perspective. Simply copying a book would take weeks or even months of work. It was a laborious, pain-staking craft but sorely necessary to preserve works of art. “The Secret of Kells” is more than just a love letter to the ornate drawings performed by monks in the middle ages. It is an elegy for these tomes, which could not have existed without the dedicated effort of hundreds of monks.
“The Secret of Kells” takes place in 9th Century Ireland in the Abbey of Kells. During an uncertain time, rife with Viking raids. It was a dark, tumultuous time in history, illuminated by the knowledge carefully curated in Irish monasteries. The story centers on a young boy, Brendan, who lives in the Abbey under the watchful eye of his Uncle Cellach. However, when another monk, Brother Aiden, arrives with his cat, Pangur Ban, and an unfinished manuscript rescued from the ruins of Iona, Brendan becomes his apprentice. Though threats from the outside world put the Abbey’s safety in jeopardy, much of the story concerns Brendan’s efforts to help complete the manuscript, all while aided by a young fairy, Aisling.
The film is set during the “Dark Ages,” but it does not dwell on the heaviness of history. Throughout the story, there are bright, bewitching frames of Brendan and Aisling playing in the sunshine, surrounded by flowers. Color is revered and used splendidly in each frame. Although the characters are simply rendered, the backgrounds are richly designed and covered in elaborate flourishes. Every frame in this film is worth pausing and admiring. The last scene is an animated rendition of the Chi-Rho page of the Book of Kells, and quite frankly, the effect is breath-taking.
For the record, I had the opportunity to see the Book of Kells when I briefly visited Dublin back in 2016, and I never did. Mostly because I’m stupid.
“Song of the Sea” may just be one of my favorite movies. The story is a little less elaborate, set in the late 20th century in Ireland. A young boy, Ben, resents his mute little sister, Saoirse, whom he blames for their mother’s disappearance. Together they live in a lonely lighthouse on the sea with their father, Conor, who still mourns the loss of his wife. We soon learn there is more to quiet Saoirse than meets the eye. Like her mother, Saoirse is a mystical selkie: a creature capable of removing its seal coat to become human. Fearing for their safety, Ben and Saoirse’s grandmother whisk them away from their home to go live with her in the city. Sadly, Saoirse becomes sick without the sea and her seal coat, and Ben must work to return Saoirse to the lighthouse. With the help (and hindrance) of more than a few magical creatures, Ben can eventually return Saoirse to the sea so that she may sing the selkie’s song and restore magic to the land.
“Song of the Sea,” like “The Secret of Kells,” is beautifully animated, though the animation is adjusted to fit the story. Rather than rich borders to mimic the illustrations in a manuscript, “Song of the Sea” features beautiful landscapes and ocean scenery. In addition, the film’s palette is cool compared to “The Book of Kells” and “Wolfwalkers,” making use of shades of blues, purples, and greys. The result is that images of the night sky and the ocean almost blend into one.
Though the strength of this film is not just in its beautiful animation but also in its story. “Song of the Sea” themes include family, loss, grief, and sorrow. What drives most of the characters is the unbearable pain of losing a loved one. This pain is so overwhelming that it forces characters like Conor, and the goddess Macha, to shut down and refuse to let any light in. “Song of the Sea” is a film that understands that grief is the price we pay for love. However, it also understands that we cannot allow ourselves to drown in our pain, nor can we refuse to feel it, because that will only hurt us more in the long run.
As you can imagine, I cried like a little bitch during this movie. However, I still want people to watch it, so I’ll try and bait you with an image of the movie’s cute little seals:
“Wolfwalkers” was released in 2020 on Apple TV, and I waited months to watch it. I was not disappointed. For the record, I was not one of those girls who was weirdly preoccupied with wolves and wolf packs, nor have I ever felt a particular interest in them as adults. I find most werewolf-related media cringe-worthy, except for the werewolves in “What We Do in the Shadows” (and “Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet the Wolfman,” which is a classic film). I’m happy to say that “Wolfwalkers” is an exception to this feeling, though I think this movie would please any girl in a wolf pack.
“Wolfwalkers” is about the unlikely friendship between two young girls, Robyn and Mebh. The story takes place in 1650 Kilkenny, Ireland, during a time of increasing urbanization and deforestation. Robyn’s father, Bill Goodfellowe (played by Sean Bean in a rare role where he doesn’t die), is an English hunter tasked with exterminating the local grey wolves, a species now extinct in Ireland. Robyn wants to be just like her father and help bring down the grey wolves until she meets Mebh, a “wolfwalker,” whose spirit leaves her body and becomes a wolf while she sleeps. Mebh wants to leave Kilkenny with her pack, but her mother, Moll, who had left to search for a new home, has not returned. All Mebh has of her mother is her gently sleeping body.
To further complicate matters, Mebh accidentally bites Robyn, thus giving Robyn the ability to transform into a wolf. It would be one thing if Robyn lived in the forest when this happened, but unfortunately for her, Robyn lives in a tiny apartment with her dad in the city. It’s not the best place for a wolf to hide, but it is a good place to begin searching for Moll.
At the front of “Wolfwalkers” is the beautiful friendship between Robyn and Mebh. Despite coming from ideological and socially divergent backgrounds, the two become immediate best friends. It reminds me of when I was a little girl, and I’d go on vacation to the beach and become best friends with a complete stranger. We’d play for what felt like all day (it was probably three hours) and then have to make a sorrowful farewell. We’d never see each other again – after all, I lived in the Bay Area, and she lived in a far-off land like Fresno, and there was no way my mom would make that drive.
Robyn is a wonderful character who embodies the themes of the film. Originally from England (aka the country ruling Ireland), she lives in the city with the father and is keen to join him in hunting the wolves, the film going so far as to have her sing an eerie song about killing wolves. However, as she comes to know Mebh and learns about the wolves, she matures into a more compassionate, open-minded person and can stand up to her father and the cold-hearted leader of the village.
The Kilkenny of today is wildly different from the one in “Wolfwalkers.” I had the pleasure of visiting the city in 2016, and it is fully modernized and a cultural hub, unlike the dense forest of the film. It is also the home of Cartoon Saloon, the animation studio responsible for Tomm Moores Irish Folklore Trilogy. And if I had known this at the time, I probably would have marched over to its front door and demanded they give me a job.
I do not know if Moore’s trilogy will become a quartet, but I wouldn’t object if Cartoon Saloon produced another film in their distinctive style. As of now, the studio is working on a version of “My Father’s Dragon” by Ruth Stiles Gannett for Netflix, and I am pumped. I loved that book as a kid, though if you asked me at gunpoint what the plot was about, I’d have no idea. I think something about the main character stuffing his backpack full of supplies and then using those supplies on the animals in the story. There was probably a dragon in there somewhere.
No matter what Cartoon Saloon continues to produce in the future, I am on board. Though I certainly hope there will be a few more films that follow Moore’s vision.
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