Wolfwalkers is a beautiful Irish folklore film that will make you nostalgic for the art of hand-drawn animation.
Wolfwalkers is in theaters now and premieres on AppleTV+ on December 11th.
We sat down with filmmakers from Cartoon Saloon, Tomm Moore (Director) and Ross Stewart (Director) as well as Maria Pareja (Art Director), and Grainne Fordham (Layout Artist) for a Q&A to learn how to draw some of the characters, but also learn everything we could about this wonderful story.
Wolfwalkers follows a young English girl named Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey), who wants to be just like her father Bill (Sean Bean) and hunt the wolves to drive them from the town in Ireland. The Lord Protector tasks her father to rid the land surrounding the walled-off town from all the wolves.
When Robyn breaks the rules and sneaks into the woods to prove she can be a master hunter like her father. She meets the free-spirited young wolfwalker named Mebh (Eva Whittaker). Mebh introduces Robyn to her magical world and teaches her all about the wolfwalkers and their magic.
Robyn is faced with the challenge of protecting her friend and obeying her father as he is tasked with killing her friend and their pack. They must rescue Mebh’s mother if they are to move the pack to safety. In a time when Christianity was on the rise and anything magical was considered the work of the devil, Robyn is tested with doing what she knows is right.
We discovered some fascinating facts about the film that audience members will love to learn during the interview.
Mebh Óg MacTíre is named after Queen Mebh of Connacht in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. According to legend, Medb is buried in Miosgán Médhbh, a 40-foot (12 m) high stone cairn on the summit of Knocknarea (Cnoc na Ré in Irish) in County Sligo. Mebh is an old Irish name. The rest of her name means young wolf. Óg means young or junior. Mac Tíre is the Irish word for wolf (the literal meaning “Son of the Land”).
Robyn Goodfellowe is named after the famous character in Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Nights Dream.”
“I had the idea because the most famous Robin Goodfellow is in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ by Shakespeare,” Co-Director Tomm Moore says. “And we just thought since she was from England and she was kind of magical and a little bit connected to the fairy world that we would call her after the most famous English fairy character we could think of.”
The town and surrounding landscape in Wolfwalkers are inspired by Kilkenny, Ireland, where the Cartoon Saloon studio is located. The areas around the forest are an intricate collection of loops and hooks. When you are looking at the town from the forest’s perspective, it is layered and stacked in a way to be 2 dimensional but also mirroring sprawling across the countryside. It was an interesting design choice that set the town and the forest apart.
“We were taking the castle, and the park and the forest that we have next to the town,” Art Director Maria Pareja says. “We were basically getting references from around… looking through the window when they were like a little bitty bluff, and they were like, ‘Oh, perfect. Here, there’s a reference.'”
“Some of the colors are so vibrant, and the parts of the movie that you think couldn’t possibly exist in real life,” Layout Artist Grainne Fordham says. “But then we often would be looking out at the sunset, just outside the studio, and those vibrant pinks and oranges would be there. So really, all of the colors existed here in Kilkenny around us. And we got to see them every day.”
Themes and Legends in Wolfwalkers
Wolves were driven out of Ireland and are now extinct, with only a few living in captivity. The last grey wolf is said to have been killed in 1786.
The Wolfwalkers story is inspired by the Irish legend of werewolves that leave their human bodies while sleeping to turn into their wolf forms. It is said that Saint Patrick came to an area to preach Christianity to the Pagans, and the clan tried to drive him away by howling when he spoke. Saint Patrick prayed to God to punish the clan because they would not convert, and the result was that they became these werewolves.
“I think Tom and myself, we care a lot about the environment and about the extinction of animals and things like that,” Co-Director Ross Stewart says. “And this story helps us tell an engaging, fun family-friendly story but also tackles some of these themes that are quite important. They’re important for us adults, but they’re going to be even more important for our kids as they grow up.”
Through the Eyes of the Wolves
There are a few times in the film when we are given a look from the wolf’s eyes. The background is a muted gray, dark color with lines that draw the focus to the trails of color that appear. These are sounds and smells that help guild the wolf as a form of heightened senses. Having the filmmakers showcase this visually is unique to the film.
“It’s kind of hard to imagine what it’s like to be a wolf, and Ross and I worked with a lot of cool artists, including Grainne and Maria, to figure out what would it seem like,” Moore said. “They don’t see so much color. Wolves. So we left it a little bit kind of gray in the background, but their smell and their hearing [is] so acute and so strong that we said ‘maybe we can use colors to represent that.’ So we could kind of get the feeling of what it is to be inside a wolf’s head and see smells and see hearing, see what they hear, because they can smell things like miles and miles away and hear things miles and miles away. It’s exciting to think what it would be like to be a more than a human animal, how different senses and different ability. It’s almost like superpowers that we don’t have.”
The best aspect of Wolfwalkers is the animation style. Much like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse blew fans out of their seats with a comic book style animation, Wolfwalkers feels like you have jumped into the pages of an old fairy tale book. There are transitions where the watercolor backgrounds completely fade out and back into a new scene. They managed to make the cave paintings, and magic glitter and sparkle had us saying, “whoa” the whole movie.
“For me, the hand-drawn animation is what I love,” Moore says. “I love to draw, and I feel like hand-drawn animation, it has a kind of timeless feel that’s perfect for fairytales and mythologies like this. Maybe if we were making a movie that needed cars in it or spaceships or something, we would take more of a 3D style. But for me, this style is like a picture book. It’s kind of timeless, and I think that CG computer animation is always improving and becoming more realistic so very quickly. And all the 3D movie looks kind of old fashioned, but I think hand-drawn animation lasts longer because this style of drawing, is kind of timeless like the style of a comic book or a picture book. But mostly just because we like to draw, honestly, the main reason is everyone in our studio just likes drawing better than making stuff in 3D. That’s kind of why we do it.”
“So much of what you see on screen is actually done with pencil and watercolors,” Pareja says. “So we were getting messy with charcoal and graphite and pencil and different paints and ink.”
Fordham says she left the studio with graphite mustaches a lot from touching her face.
The linework you see in the “how to draw tutorial” is placed over beautiful watercolor backgrounds.
Easter Eggs in Wolfwalkers
Easter eggs from other Cartoon Saloon movies like The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea in Wolkwalkers. Like when the Eye of Crom is plucked out of one of the girl’s hair and tossed aside. You’ll also see the cat, Pangur Bán, in the background.
At the end of the credits, you’ll find “Wolf Consultants,” and these are the studio dogs.
“They’re all the dogs that people bring in to the studio,” Moore said. “And sometimes they’re running around your chair while you’re trying to work and chewing up toys and bones, sometimes they’re growling and barking in the corner, but everyone loves them.”
There are also lots of studio members turned into characters that you can see in the townspeople.
Lessons the filmmakers hope audience members take away from Wolfwalkers.
“That if someone tells you that a certain group of people or animals are your enemy or bad, you don’t have to believe them,” Stewart says. “You should find out for yourself. Everyone can be your friends, just like Robin discovered with Mebh and the wolves.”
“Oh, I think as well about realizing that we’re part of nature and it’s not our job to dominate nature, but that we should enjoy just being part of nature and protect it, rather than chopping down trees or thinking that we have to wipe out all the species,” Moore says. “I think reconnecting with the fact that we’re just one more animal amongst all the others in nature is really important.”
“You don’t have to do what society tells you to do,” Pareja says. “You have to push the boundaries and try to do what you really like to do. And don’t let others tell you what you have to do just, because you’re a girl or you’re from a minority or something, you have to do what you really want to do.”
Don’t miss this gorgeous film, Wolfwalkers, in theaters now and streaming on AppleTV+ on December 11th.