Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s “Wolfwalkers” is set in a very specific time period – 1650 in Kilkenny, Ireland. It was a very important town for Oliver Cromwell’s English troops to take over, and the film opens with an English soldier and his daughter, Robyn, settling into their house in town. It’s clear that the English Lord Protector and his soldiers are oppressing the Irish of Kilkenny, and the Lord Protector is determined to kill all the wolves in the forest outside the town walls. Robyn is determined to have adventures killing wolves, like her father, but instead encounters Mebh, a young wolfwalker her own age, and discovers the truth about the wolf pack and the magic of the forest — and she herself transforms into a wolfwalker — but not first without tense clashes with the Lord Protector and English troops that threaten the wolves, forest and Mebh’s wolfwalker mother.
“Wolfwalkers” is from Apple Original Film and makes its world premiere at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival. “Wolfwalkers” joins the Apple Original film “Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds,” from filmmakers Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer, at TIFF.
Animation fans will no doubt recognize Moore’s style of storytelling from his Oscar-nominated “Song of the Sea” and “The Secret of Kells.” Moore and Stewart talked about the film on the eve of the festival.
“Wolfwalkers” has a very specific look — the dull colors and blocky look of the village contrast with the gorgeous color palette of the forest.
Moore: The town is based on wood block [art] and things from the time which are pamphlets that were being distributed — it was the early version of fake news and the internet, they were just printing these pamphlets distributed in England saying how awful the Irish were. Some of the wood block was beautiful, but there were some really crude ones as well that they just bashed out. And that was kind of what we looked at for the town. We had this idea that we could create a kind of geometry and you know, if you make a print and it kind of slides off the picture, the color is a little bit offset from the lines. So we tried to do that. But then in the forest, it’s much more organic and you know, watercolor splashes and really sketchy lines and random shapes. So really just trying to build a contrast between the two.
Stewart: One of the things that Cromwell did when he came [to Ireland] was to destroy a lot of the stained glass windows [in the churches], because it was around that time when they didn’t want any colors. Colors were too exciting. And colors were like, almost too lustful. So they smashed stained glass windows, they got rid of statues, they got rid of decoration, they wanted the whole church to be very plain and dull
The wolves also have two looks.
Moore: The have to be really wild and scary to the townspeople but then also be able to see them from another point of view where they’re more like a big pile of puppies, so that was really important for Robyn’s journey, for Robyn to see that this thing that was the enemy and was the thing to be feared but when she became a wolf and she was hanging around with these other wolves she was able to see them goofing around, smelling her butt and playing around. She thinks ‘Oh, wait, this is like this is just like a family, a big happy family.’ And Robin was able to see that they could no longer be the scary enemy anymore.
And I think it’s a really good theme of when you step into your enemy’s shoes, you suddenly understand they’re not scary anymore and they’re not the enemy anymore.
The design for the wolfwalkers themselves is quite different.
Moore: We were thinking of Art Nouveau, really organic and of course we were going for really opposite shapes that the town.
Stewart: We were also looking at Pictish tattoos and Pictish markings to show that the wolfwalkers had been around for a long, long, long time.
What about the theme of the film, it’s a film that advocates learning about your perceived enemy, shining a light on ignorance in order to bring enlightenment.
Moore: We were developing themes that we were concerned with seven years ago that got more and more relevant. I mean, I’m working on a short for Greenpeace at the moment about the destruction of the Amazon in Brazil, and the sad comparisons between [Brazilian president Jair] Bolsonaro now and Oliver Cromwell [then] destroying the forests.
Stewart: I think that the theme of the extinctions and the theme of the ruthless dictator coming in and wiping out species, taming the land and all that’s one thing, but I think there’s also a very strong personal theme for Robyn. She discovers who she really is, she has to be that person, she has to live that life, she has to be true to herself.
This is the third movie where you are calling on your Irish roots.
Moore: Ross and I had worked together on “Secret of Kells” and Ross worked on “Song of the Sea,” and we sort of felt it would be nice for this one to be like a final triptych of the of the Irish folklore movies.
GKids is distributing in North America but Apple is new.
Moore: I think it was great working with them. We were really lucky. The fear is when you work with a big company like that, that there might be too much interference. They didn’t like impose too much or have too much of a say. And one thing I always valued from the very start of my career was independence, and I’m sure Ross feels that as well. He’s worked in bigger studios. You notice the difference, and so the independence of [our production company] Cartoon Saloon was really important to us, and that they really got behind us.