Cartoon Saloon first landed on my radar, and I imagine many others, when their feature debut, The Secret of Kells, surprisingly appeared on the list of films nominated for 2019’s Best Animated Feature Oscar, a category usually reserved for that year’s titles released by Disney, Pixar, Aardman and Studio Ghibli (as well as the odd Dreamworks and Sony films that have picked up good reviews).

When I got around to watching the film for myself, I was suitably impressed by the visually striking animation and when I later watched the studio’s follow-up, Song of the Sea, then The Breadwinner, I fell in love. So, when it was announced that the former pair of films, along with the team’s latest fantasy adventure, Wolfwalkers would be released in a lavish Blu-ray boxset, entitled Cartoon Saloon’s Irish Folklore Trilogy, I practically jumped for joy and snapped up a copy to review.

* Due to a mixture of laziness and the fact my opinion has not changed much, I’ve copied and pasted my old Song of the Sea review into this write-up, though I’ve made a couple of tweaks after a rewatch.

The Secret of Kells

Director: Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey
Screenplay: Fabrice Ziolkowski
Based on a Story by: Tomm Moore
Starring: Evan McGuire, Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally, Christen Mooney, Liam Hourican, Paul Tylak
Country: Ireland, Belgium, France, United Kingdom
Running Time: 78 min
Year: 2009

The Secret of Kells, which was co-directed by two of Cartoon Saloon’s founders, Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, tells the story of Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire), a young boy living and working with the monks of the Abbey of Kells in 9th Century Ireland.

The Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) is Brendan’s uncle, who is terrified that the Vikings, in the midst of their expansion around Europe, are on their way to Kells. In a bid to protect both the inhabitants and the valuable holy texts created and housed in the town, the Abbot orders everyone to help build a giant wall around them.

Brendan is forbidden to leave this increasingly well-fortified compound. However, when the renowned illuminator (i.e. illustrator of manuscripts) Brother Aidan (Mick Lally) arrives in Kells, he befriends the curious Brendan and sends him on an errand into the woods to find some special berries to make ink.

In the woods, Brendan meets Aisling (Christen Mooney), a fairy who saves him from a pack of wolves and takes him to the berries he needs. She also warns him of Crom Cruach, a God of death and destruction who lives in the woods.

Back at the Abbey, whilst working with Aidan on illustrations, Brendan learns that the key to finishing the Book of Kells is a special crystal called the ‘Eye of Colm Cille’, which has been lost to Crom Cruach. Despite being reprimanded for leaving the walls earlier, Brendan bravely faces the evil being. Meanwhile, the Vikings draw ever closer to Kells.

After previously admiring but not loving The Secret of Kells, I liked it a lot more this second time around. The visual style is what stuck with me from the initial viewing and it was as glorious as I remembered. Moore and Twomey took inspiration from the actual Book of Kells (it isn’t a fictional construct for the film), as well as similar medieval art, to craft a look that celebrates those clean, flat but intricately detailed images. The characters are kept simple but enjoyably exaggerated in terms of size and shape. These, on top of some beautifully stylised backgrounds, give an expressionistic slant to the film, on top of the influence of medieval art.

There are some clever touches and fresh new styles used throughout too, particularly when taking an aside to the main action such as in flashbacks or imagined plans. There’s a particularly nice moment where Brendan describes his scheme to sneak out of the Abbey and this is visualised in a style that looks like chalk on a blackboard.

The main set-pieces are stunningly realised too, such as a frightening Viking attack filled with boldly contrasting blacks, whites and reds, and Brendan’s battle with Crom Cruach, which is envisioned like a cryptic maze or puzzle where Brendan literally draws his way to victory.

The story is stronger than I remember. There’s a fair amount of backstory delivered early on to set the scene, and perhaps that information dump originally set me on the wrong foot. However, on second viewing I appreciated how this was visualised rather than purely spoken and, whilst it has quite a depth of background, the core narrative isn’t too difficult to follow and feels original, despite being based on folklore and following a traditional hero’s journey structure.

I do still have a small quibble with the film though. Whilst the climactic Viking invasion is powerfully dramatic, the aftermath of this and coda feel a little rushed, leading to a less emotionally satisfying finale than I’d have hoped and got in the other films in this set.

That said, the film is still an absolute joy to behold. The slight stumble at the end only fractionally mars an otherwise stunningly beautiful and enthralling mythical adventure. A feast for the eyes from start to finish but filled with enough imagination and excitement to prevent it from being a mere stylistic exercise, The Secret of Kells rightfully put Cartoon Saloon on the map in the largely monopolised world of animation.

Film:

Song of the Sea

Director: Tomm Moore
Screenplay: Will Collins
Based on a Story by: Tomm Moore
Starring: David Rawle, Brendan Gleeson, Lisa Hannigan, Fionnula Flanagan, Lucy O’Connell, Jon Kenny
Country: Ireland, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, France
Running Time: 93 min
Year: 2014

Like a number of classic animated films, Song of the Sea opens with tragedy. Ben (voiced by David Rawle) is left heartbroken by the loss of his mother, who dies giving birth to Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell). Because of this, Ben is quite hostile to his little sister, who still hasn’t spoken by her 6th birthday, the time around which most of the film is set.

Their father Conor (Brendan Gleeson) is a shell of a man after the death of his wife and the three live a quiet, over-protective existence in a lighthouse on a lonely island. The children’s stubborn old grandma (Fionnula Flanagan) arrives one day, who believes the island is no place for youngsters to grow up and, after a close call when Saoirse is found washed up on the beach, she takes the kids to live with her in the local town.

Ben will have none of this though and runs away to make his way back home. Saoirse secretly escapes too, so he’s forced to have her tag along. There’s more to Saoirse than meets the eye though. In her nighttime escapade in the sea, she discovered she’s actually half selkie, a magical creature that can turn into a seal. By unlocking her powers, she awakens numerous spirits around the area and the two children become embroiled in a mystical quest to free a number of fairy creatures who have been turned to stone by the witch Macha (also voiced by Fionnula Flanagan).

Song of the Sea is fantastic. The clear selling point to the film is its striking visual style. It’s absolutely stunning. The film has the look of a beautifully illustrated children’s book rather than the formally standardised (but nevertheless finely crafted) style of Disney and Pixar films. The Secret of Kells looked gorgeous, but this takes it to another level, with some wonderfully realised fantasy worlds and creatures as well as gorgeously composed ‘real world’ settings. Every frame is a work of art and feels wholly original (although it shares some stylistic similarities with Kells).

Some have compared this to the work of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli and I can see why. The fantastical world is incredibly rich and imaginatively developed, taking elements from Irish folklore that are little known outside of the country. Like in most of Miyazaki’s films, the villain isn’t straight-up evil either. Macha has her reasons for turning people to stone and it makes for some fascinating moral questions. She takes away people’s bad feelings, allowing them to sleep calmly without worries. People need these emotions though and without them they can’t function, a message shared by the equally excellent animated film from 2014, Inside Out.

This message spills over into the human story too, which allows the core drama to affect and engross as much as the fantastical elements. This fact meant that I preferred this to a couple of Miyazaki’s films (which is a bold statement for me as I’m a huge fan). I re-watched Howl’s Moving Castle recently and although the world created is a joy to behold, I found the story a little over-complicated, so the film didn’t satisfy as a whole. Song of the Sea keeps things a little more simple, so you never lose track of what’s happening or what’s important. This helps deliver a moving finale, which I must admit had me in tears (although I have a habit of getting emotional with many animated films).

Like Studio Ghibli’s work, the film is devoid of classic Disney-isms like the comedy sidekick or big musical numbers (although there are a few Irish folk songs that play a big part). There are no forced attempts to make the film more adult-friendly either by loading it with in-jokes or pop-culture references. Moore and team stay focused on the story and the world they’re creating, so adults and children alike will be drawn in by the film as a whole, not through any added gimmicks.

Perhaps the central story concepts aren’t the most original and it’s easy to see where the film is going, but it’s a magical journey I’d be more than happy to enjoy again and again.

Film:

Wolfwalkers

Director: Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart
Screenplay: Will Collins, Jericca Cleland (story and script consultant)
Based on a Story by: Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart
Starring: Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney, Tommy Tiernan, Maria Doyle Kennedy
Country: Ireland, United Kingdom, Luxembourg, France
Running Time: 104 min
Year: 2020

The most recent film in the set, which reportedly ends Cartoon Saloon’s ‘Folklore Trilogy’ (none of the films are linked in terms of main characters or storylines, but all share a basis in Irish history or mythology), is Wolfwalkers.

This time directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, the film is set in Kilkenny in 1650, whilst the town is under the command of the English Lord Protector (voiced by Simon McBurney and based on Oliver Cromwell, who was leading the invasion of Ireland at the time depicted). Young Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) is an English girl living in the town with her father, Bill (Sean Bean), who is the Lord Protector’s chief hunter.

Bill is ordered to kill the wolves in the nearby forest, so the trees can be chopped down, presumably to aid English expansion in the area. Robyn dreams of being a hunter like her father, so she follows him into the woods one day, with her crossbow and pet falcon, Merlyn. However, when caught up in a wolf attack, she accidentally shoots Merlyn and sees the bird get taken away by a mysterious girl.

When the bird reappears, miraculously healed, Robyn heads back into the woods to investigate. She’s caught in a trap but is freed by a wolf. Robyn, nevertheless tries to fight the creature and is bitten on the arm. She follows the wolf, only to find it turn into the girl she saw earlier, taking away Merlyn. Named Mebh (Eva Whittaker), the magical youngster is a Wolfwalker, a person whose spirit leaves them and becomes a wolf when they sleep.

The two girls become friends but, later, Robyn discovers the bite she received has turned her into a Wolfwalker herself. So, at nights Robyn must avoid the clutches of her expert hunter father and come to terms with her new powers.

Meanwhile, Mebh searches for the wolf-form of her mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy), who has gone missing.

Whilst I like Soul a lot, I now believe Cartoon Saloon were robbed at the last Oscar ceremony, when Wolfwalkers lost out to the Pixar film for the Best Animated Feature award. Like the other films in this set, Wolfwalkers is a stunningly rendered film that turns Irish folklore and history into a rip-roaring and emotionally satisfying adventure.

I think it’s probably the strongest film of the trilogy by a small margin. Most effective for me here was the sense of drama. Whilst Kells delivered some exciting action scenes but slightly less of an emotional payoff and Song of the Sea keeps the focus largely small and intimate but is deeply moving, Wolfwalkers manages to take the best of both worlds.

The film is littered with thrilling set-pieces, culminating in an epic final act that pits nature and magic against the destructive weaponry of the English army. Anchoring this, however, is a pair of stories of close but complex parent-child bonds and one of blossoming friendship that both provide strong emotional heft among the action scenes.

The writing, on the whole, is expertly done. Pacing is pitch-perfect and the narrative arcs are all satisfyingly formed and tied up.

There’s depth to the content too. The historical setting, of a time when the English attempted to conquer Ireland, is illuminating and one not often shown on screen, particularly in animated form. It also provides an environmental message, as the period saw Cromwell and his troops destroying natural habitats in the country. The wolves were indeed wiped out not long after this period, along with other species native to Ireland. The film displays the Lord Protector as someone keen to prove his dominance over nature as a way to demonstrate his power as a leader to the people he’s trying to rule.

This environmental message is clear but not pushed in your face, keeping the core narratives about family and friendship at the forefront.

Also subtly integrated are some thoughts on the role of women at the time. Robyn was originally going to be a boy but sensibly it was changed, adding a totally different dynamic to the film. She longs to be a hunter but is expected to work in the scullery. On top of exploring the limited, subservient expectations of women in the period, there’s a slight hint of a love story between Maeve and Robin on top of their friendship.

It seems repetitive to mention the film’s unique visual style too, but it would be remiss of me not to. Once again, Moore, Stewart and team employ a flat, very 2D aesthetic. This time, the inspiration comes largely from woodblock prints from the period depicted, particularly in the town backgrounds and characters that live there. They have a sharp, clean style, with thick dark lines. The forest and creatures that dwell there, on the other hand, have a rough, more natural look with some shaping sketches still visible and colours spilling a little over lines. It gives the conflict between nature and human development great contrast in a beautifully realised fashion.

In terms of style, I particularly loved the ‘wolf vision’ sequences, as I like to call them, where we see through the eyes of Robyn as a wolf. The look here is taken to a primal form, with simple charcoal drawings on paper. Using bold colours for smells, sounds and creatures in the scenes whilst everything else is monotone, the scenes are strikingly realised and stunningly animated with natural, fluid, three-dimensional movement.

I could go on, raving about the film, but I’ll tie things up before I get carried away. Like the rest of the films in the set, Wolfwalkers is at the pinnacle of modern animated filmmaking, proving that 2D animation is far from dead and buried. Here’s looking forward to what the studio come up with next.

Film:

Cartoon Saloon’s Irish Folklore Trilogy is out now in a 4-Disc Blu-ray box set in the UK, released by Studiocanal. The films all look stunning, with colours richly translated and details sharp and clear. Audio is strong too, with rich and nicely balanced mixes.

You get a wealth of special features included in the set:

THE SECRET OF KELLS
– Audio Commentary with Filmmakers
– Voices of Ireland
– Director’s Presentation
– Pencil-to-Picture
– Aisling at the Oscars
– Deleted Scenes
– Short film – Cuilin Dualach

SONG OF THE SEA
– Audio Commentary with Filmmakers
– Behind the Scenes (with optional Tomm Moore commentary)
– The Art of Song of the Sea
– Animation Tests (with optional Tomm Moore commentary)

WOLFWALKERS
– Audio Commentary with Filmmakers
– The Art of Voicing Wolfwalkers
– “How to Draw” Demonstrations
– The Music of Wolfwalkers
– Behind “Running With The Wolves”
– Character Design
– Interviews with the Voice Cast
– Behind the Scenes
– Animation Process
– Trailers

BONUS DISC
– Song of the Sea Animatic with Director’s Commentary
– The Secret of Kells Animatic with Director’s Commentary
– Wolfwalkers Animatic with Director’s Commentary
– Reading of Pangur Bán by Mick Lally
– The Two Worlds of Wolfwalkers
– Archive documentary about Cartoon Saloon

There’s an awful lot of material to go through, but I’ll do my best to give my brief thoughts on most of it.

The Secret of Kells commentary goes into great detail as to style and story choices and influences, as well as other interesting tidbits about the production process. Having three commentators helps keep the energy up, making for an excellent track.

The commentary on Song of the Sea is the only solo track in the set, with Tomm Moore providing background on how the film was produced. Despite the lack of support, Moore keeps the energy up on a commentary dense with insight.

The commentary on Wolfwalkers is with Moore and writer Will Collins so focuses largely on how the film was envisioned and developed, whilst the animatic track, which I’ll get to in a second, discusses more of the technical and stylistic side of things.

Yes, the commentaries don’t end on each individual disc. The bonus disc has commentaries on feature-length animatics for all three films, so you get a bonus commentary for each. These are superb, as Moore hosts and brings various guests onto the tracks, all people involved in the productions, so they cover largely different ground to the original commentaries and have a more varied style. They also act as fascinating explorations into some of the many different roles required to produce animated films.

Going back to the Secret of Kells disc, the deleted scenes are largely just slightly extended sequences and the differences often only subtle.

The various ‘making of’ videos on the same disc explore the technical stages of production. These show behind the scenes clips and montages switching between different stages and layers of the animation to show the depth of work that went into it and most other animated films, for that matter.

Some clips with animatics are also included to see how the film was initially planned and prepared. The full animatics of all the films are included on the bonus disc though.

The early short film Cúilín Dualach is a quirky and sweet animation about a boy born with his head turned backwards. It’s quite different in style and approach to the three features in this set but it still shows great promise from its makers.

Away from the commentaries, the Song of the Sea extras are fairly thin on the ground, though the collection of featurettes cover various sections of the production and post-production process, albeit briefly. There’s also a nice extra that has a 7min slideshow of concept art, which is as beautiful as the imagery in the film.

The Wolfwalkers disc is the star of the show though. On top of the aforementioned commentary you get a wealth of extra supplements.

First up, there’s an excellent making of, which blends a near-half-hour creative team Q&A with various sketches, concept art, final frames and some clips of the team in Kilkenny. There’s also a lot of general footage from the city, to show how they translated it to animation for the film. A shorter making of is also included that forgoes any interviews, opting for showing footage of the team at work under a soundtrack excerpt.

Any budding artists might be interested to know there’s an hour and a half worth of drawing tutorials, showing you how to recreate some of the lead characters.

There are a couple of pieces on the voice acting too – one shorter montage of clips from the recording sessions and a longer video, featuring interviews with the cast, exploring their characters and approach.

Again you get a short piece showing the various stages of animation. This one is particularly good though as interviews/commentary run over the clips to explain what you’re seeing.

The bonus disc is excellent too. As well as the wonderful trio of animatics with commentaries, which alone justify getting the collection if you already have the earlier two titles, you get three valuable featurettes.

There’s a reading of the poem Pangur Bán, which plays over some sped-up footage of character sketching. It’s a very short piece but a nice little addition.

There’s also an essay on Wolfwalkers and its use of lines and shapes to explore the clash between nature and civilisation in the film. It perhaps overstates its message a touch but it’s a clear and intriguing dissection of the film.

Finally on the bonus disc, there’s an archive documentary, presumably from the early 00s, about a burgeoning Cartoon Saloon. It’s a little dated, particularly when you see the retro e-card and web animations being made by the studio, but offers a fascinating glimpse into the workings of Cartoon Saloon in their early days. The real selling point of the short documentary though, is a tantalising first glimpse of The Secret of Kells, back when it was being developed under the working title of ‘Rebel’. The style we see in the sketches and early animations are notably different to the end result, so it’s a fascinating piece to see.

On top of these on-disc extras, some art cards and a poster, you get a beautifully illustrated booklet included in the set. This runs through the history of the studio and trio of films included here, as well as including illustrated sections on the character and background designs from the films.

When I was told about the set, I was excited because I love the films, but I expected it to largely be a repackaged collection of pre-existing discs. Whilst that’s true to some extent (with regards to the Secret of Kells and Song of the SeaWolfwalkers currently isn’t available as a standalone Blu-ray), having the hugely valuable bonus disc, the beautiful packaging and gorgeous booklet, means this ended up being easily one of the very best releases of the year.

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Cartoon Saloon’s Irish Folklore Collection
Films
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About The Author

Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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