Irish Animation Studio
Cartoon Saloon Delivers
Hand-Drawn Oscar® Contender
hile animated feature films increasingly benefit from advancements in digital technology, Irish outfit Cartoon Saloon continues to remind audiences that hand-drawn animation is one of the purest storytelling artforms. The Kilkenny-based company is dedicated to the art of 2D animation and its latest effort Wolfwalkers, has earned the company a fourth Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, putting distributor Apple TV+ in the race for that category for the first time. The film is the fourth animated feature from the company and the final installment in its highly acclaimed triptych about Irish folklore, following 2009’s The Secret of Kells and 2014’s Song of the Sea.
Wolfwalkers, much like its predecessors, has been widely embraced by the industry since its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2020 and the enchanting story showcases Cartoon Saloon’s ability to use hand-crafted styles to yield powerful stories that resonate with modern-day audiences.
“What I love about what we do in the studio specifically, and I think it really plays well in Wolfwalkers, is just the idea that it’s not a 3D model so every frame of animation is hand-drawn,” says Cartoon Saloon producer and co-founder Nora Twomey. “Every frame of animation is hand drawn so you’re getting an entire team to draw the character in the same way. When a character walks out of one scene and into another, that can be two different people animating the character and handling the character, the performance and the spirit of the character. So, you’re getting maybe 100 artists to all align themselves in a way where they’re all telling the same story, with each of their hands empathetically working on top of each other’s. To me, that’s the absolute beauty of 2D animation.”
Wolfwalkers is directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart and co-produced by Cartoon Saloon and Melusine Productions. Moore directed Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells making this film his third Oscar-nominated title. The story is a wonderful cocktail of history, fantasy and stunning aesthetics spanning across different generations. Set in Kilkenny in 1650, its protagonist, Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) is an apprentice hunter who travels with her father from England to help take out a pack of wolves, under the orders from authoritarian Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. Long confined by the Puritanical society in which she’s been raised, the girl experiences true freedom for the first time only when she befriends Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a girl from a mysterious tribe, which is said to transform into a pack of wolves by night. It also features the voices of Simon McBurney, Sean Bean and Maria Doyle Kennedy.
“What I love about what we do in the studio specifically, and I think it really plays well in Wolfwalkers, is just the idea that it’s not a 3D model so every frame of animation is hand-drawn,”
It was a bold move to strive to make a family-friendly title with two young girls in the lead roles set against the bleak backdrop of the 17th Century and Cromwell’s tyrannical stance in Ireland. Stewart admits that this was the most challenging part in the whole scriptwriting process.
“We really had to scale back from a lot of the darker themes as it had to be a family-friendly demographic like The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea,” says Stewart. “Robin and Mebh’s story is the heart of the story so making it about these two little girls becoming friends is really the main focus of what we were trying to say.”
The story is also ambitious in its idea to straddle the two different worlds that the girls live in. On the one hand, Robyn’s brutal Puritan town is much like a prison she is longing to escape from while Mebh’s lush and wild forest holds the freedom that Robyn yearns for.
The film has notched up a raft of accolades since it premiered at Toronto in September and critics groups have embraced the title. In addition to its Oscar nomination, Wolfwalkers established itself as a leader at the Annie Awards, with 10 nominations. It’s the first animated film to win AFI Fest’s Audience Award and it has also earned Best Animated Feature nominations from BAFTA, the Producers Guild Awards, the Critics’ Choice Super Awards and the Golden Globes.
Wolfwalkers is available in theaters and on Apple TV+.
Moore admits that in the development process they had contemplated making Robyn’s character a boy but the more they thought of it, the more it made sense for her to be a little girl.
“The things that a little girl would have been up against in that time period would have been much greater even than today,” Moore says. “The heart of the movie then became these two little girls representing two different views of femininity and attitudes towards females in that time period. I think it has a lot of resonance for little girls today.”