Dubbed the Irish Studio Ghibli, the makers of Wolfwalkers are giving everything they've got
On 34th Street in Manhattan, covering the side of a building that overlooks Penn Station, city workers began rolling out a massive mural for Wolfwalkers, the latest film from Oscar-nominated Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon. In normal conditions, co-directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart would be able to see it in person on a press promotional tour, but with the current climate surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, which sent Ireland back into stricter lockdowns in October, that plan was nixed. Yet, looking at candids of the image shared by fans over social media, Moore can’t help but feel excited. Wolfwalkers is the first big original animated film released by Apple TV+ and the streamer is giving it the love and attention it deserves, including a limited North American theatrical run through GKIDS (now playing) before its December streaming debut.
“There’s a bit of pride in me when I see that big painting in New York, or billboards, going up,” Moore tells EW. “I don’t think there’s been a hand-drawn movie marketed like that in the last 20 years. I kinda like that we stuck with [the medium] long enough that it became cool again.”
As CG drives most of the recognizable animation money-drivers in Hollywood (Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, etc.), Cartoon Saloon maintains a dedication to the hand-drawn animation medium, which has, in part, influenced its nickname in the press over the years: Ireland’s Studio Ghibli. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, co-founding filmmakers of Japan’s hallowed movie-making house, crafted authentic Japanese fantasies that dazzled international audiences. Cartoon Saloon sought to do the same for Irish folklore. Moore understands the urge to make the Ghibli comparison. “But I think that’s more about these three movies that happened to be our first body of work,” he says. Those being The Secret of Kells (2009), Song of the Sea (2014), and The Breadwinner (2017).
With a story about a boy whose sister can change into a seal, Song of the Sea, with Moore as director and Stewart as concept artist, was “a bit more of a [My Neighbor] Totoro, Spirited Away” type of movie, Moore says. "A gentle thing." The Secret of Kells, a fantasy from Moore and filmmaker Nora Twomey about the making of the illuminated manuscript the Book of Kells, “was a little darker.” Twomey later directed The Breadwinner solo, though that film maintained the similar visual style. Now with Wolfwalkers, a joint effort from Moore and Stewart, similarities to Ghibli’s wolf-riding heroine in Princess Mononoke have already been pointed out; the two girls in the film, one living in the woods, the other in a city, bear the magical ability to transform their spirits into wolves while their bodies sleep.
For the filmmakers, a larger influence was actually a different Ghibli title, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, about a tiny girl found inside a bamboo stalk. “I always remember that was like laying down the gauntlet for how far you could go in terms of expressiveness with the drawings,” Stewart remarks.
Talk of “the next Ghibli in town” has helped drum up buzz for Cartoon Saloon over the years, but Ghibli is as much of an influence on Moore and Stewart as, say, the French animated film Ernest & Celestine, graphic novels, the Disney classic 101 Dalmatians, and even Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. (Whenever the animators thought they were pushing the style on Wolfwalkers too far away from the norm, Moore would point to the Oscar-winning Spidey film and tell his crew, “Did you see Spider-Verse? It’s f—in’ nuts!” Therefore, they too could be f—in’ nuts.) “I think [Cartoon Saloon] is gonna go in a lot of directions — and already is,” Moore says.
When Cartoon Saloon initially set out to create three films rooted in folklore stories targeted towards a family-friendly audience, Moore and the team of animators "had some ideas that we weren’t able to do either through lack of experience or lack of budget, or both,” he explains. But with Wolfwalkers, being the last of the three, they grew more bold. “We took all of those ideas that were on the shelf and tried to bring them to the table and be brave enough to try to put them on screen. I think we earned the right to do it.”
Set in Medieval times, Wolfwalkers sees the arrival of the young Robyn Goodfellowe (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) in a Puritanical town in Ireland run by the overbearing Lord Protector (Simon McBurney). Her father (Sean Bean) has been tasked with wiping out the wolf population in the area. Hoping to prove herself a fearsome hunter herself to avoid working in the kitchens, Robyn sets out into the forbidden woods, where she meets and befriends Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a magical Wolfwalker in search of her mother, who hasn't returned to her human body after venturing off one night as a wolf. With the girls' bond strengthening, Robyn's life is thrown into danger as she begins to transform into the very thing her father has been tasked to destroy.
Back directing The Secret of Kells, for which Stewart served as art director, Moore remembers a sense of "nervousness" as they crafted what would eventually become their signature animation aesthetic. It was the fear "that we were going so far from a different style, so far from a Disney style," he says. "But our French producer said, 'No, you have to go as far as you can so you don’t get compared unfavorably. You have to find your own voice.' That gave us the incentive." By the time they developed Wolfwalkers, they leaned fully into that visual, pushing it as far as they could by paying homage to 1600s woodcut illustrations for the clean-cut town design and the works of picture-book artist Emily Hughes to capture "the energy of the forest."
Perhaps their boldest move feels silly to call bold, because, as Stewart points out, Disney did it in 101 Dalmatians. That was the first contemporary Disney movie to utilize Xerox photocopy technology, which allowed the artists to copy their drawings directly into the animation cels of the film. As a result, Stewart says "some of the rough drawings would naturally come through. So, you might get these odd little construction drawings almost by mistake, but we loved that."
The pair didn't use that exact method, but sought to invoke that same style for Wolfwalkers. As Robyn transforms into her wolf self, the rough pencil lines become visible, which is a reflection of "a freedom and an energy and a life within, an inner spirit that can’t be tamed," Stewart explains. "The more Robyn goes towards becoming free and becoming a Wolfwalker, the more rough and the more energetic her lines would become" — a direct contrast to how neatly they intentionally designed the characters of the Puritanical town. Again, The Tale of Princess Kaguya became a guiding light. Stewart remarks how that film "had some of the roughest mark-making on screen, really scribbly drawings, and it had such energy."
Moore counts this detail as yet another technique they talked about utilizing for previous movies but were never able to pull off. "The only downside to that," he says, "is some animators would draw really, really perfectly. Most people would draw a little bit scribbly but some people would draw this perfect singular line, so the clean-up artists had to roughen up their lines." It was as if they had to break themselves of their traditional training to make something unique. Moore jokes they decided to call the clean-up animators, who typically clean up any remaining rough edges left over from the sketches, final line animators "because they weren't cleaning up the drawings, they were making them scribbly."
"I remember from even college, that kind of scribbly line, it’s okay for a short, but an audience won’t sit through a feature film like that," Stewart reflects. "You get told these things that trap you within a certain creative box, and I think only when you see other people push it further you go, 'I think we can push that as far, as well.' Maybe there’s a collective bravery."
Moore and Stewart both stuck with hand-drawn animation because it felt like a continuation of art school, in some respects. Some of their peers at Ballyfermot College in Dublin would go on to work in videogames, and Stewart remembers their jealousy over the fact that they were still able to draw, even though they were making "hardly any money" at the time. What was considered old is now new again in animation, and the hand-drawn craft stands out as fresh and daring against a forest of CG animation.
"I think people [were] tired of the old Disney love in terms of hand-drawn, and people have looked at CG," Moore remarks of the industry's progression. "It’s gone super realistic. Now everyone's trying to break out of the little box that they built for themselves." He calls something like Spider-Verse ironic, in the sense that it's computer-generated but "someone had to go over the CG and draw lines on top to make it look like a [comic book] drawing." Whereas they just "delivered drawings to the screen."
"It’s just another evolution, really," Stewart suggests. "Who knows what’ll come out after this."
For now, they can rest easy knowing their movie's billboard is now the same size as the one for Spider-Verse.
Wolfwalkers is playing in select theaters now. The film will premiere on Apple TV+ this Dec. 11.