Photo Credit: Apple

By Mary Ellen Holden

Powerful and empowering, the folk animated feature film Wolfwalkers, seven years in the making, is nominated for Best Animated Feature for the upcoming Oscars and EE British Academy Film Award (BAFTA). The co-production between Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, and Melusine Productions has been widely recognized and celebrated throughout the awards season. This thematically rich and visually arresting film has received 65 nominations across all key industry guilds, and critics groups with 20 wins to date. Accolades also go to the film distributors, GKIDS in theaters and via Apple TV+ worldwide, competing in the Animated Features race for the first time.

Wolfwalkers, set in 1650, is an animated fantasy adventure film that follows Robyn Goodfellowe, a young apprentice hunter from England who arrives in Ireland with her father during a time of superstition and magic to wipe out the last wolf pack. Robyn befriends a free-spirited girl, Mebh, a member of a mysterious tribe rumored to have the ability to transform into wolves by night. This unlikely duo forms a deep friendship that facilitates a new storytelling style that transcends societal boundaries, personal circumstances, environmental challenges (including extinction), and time.

In mid-March, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media hosted an Influencer Screening of the film, followed by a panel featuring Director/Producer Tomm Moore, Director Ross Stewart, and Producer Nora Twomey. Madeline Di Nonno, President and CEO of the Institute, moderated the discussion, which provided a rare inside look at the film’s central themes that resonate today. Excerpts follow:

Madeline Di Nonno: Let’s talk about Gender Equality at the heart of the Institute and your two ferocious female leads.

Tomm Moore: In our original draft, Robyn was a little boy who wants to be a hunter, but that would have been too easy a transition, so we flipped the script and made the character a little girl. Our lead heroines come from vastly different backgrounds and societies that are antagonistic towards each other. Still, we wanted them to become friends. The thematic story that we kept coming back to is about empathy between humans and humans and animals. Sometimes we ascribe negative human attributes to an animal, like a wolf, and then these attributes become used as weapons against humans.

Ross Stewart: We’re becoming aware that gender is quite fluid nowadays. Boys are more feminine, and young girls sound more like boys. We didn’t have to change much of Robyn’s conversation as it was applicable for either gender.

Madeline: What did you draw upon in your real lives to create two female leads with such boundless agency?

Ross: The strong females in our lives inspired us. My mother was a feminist in Ireland back in the ’60s and ’70s. She was strong-minded in the face of the Catholic Church, which was quite dominant at the time.

Tomm: I have a granddaughter, and it’s like your motto, “If she can see it, she can be it.” I also based Robyn’s character design on my wife and the cartoonist Allison Bechdel. We worked with our editors to ensure that we passed the Bechdel Test. (NOTE: For a film to pass The Bechdel Test, the movie must simply have the following: It must have at least two female characters; they must both have names; they must talk to each other about something other than a man).

Madeline: What was your approach to hiring voice actors for the project?

Nora Twomey: We worked with a casting agency as we needed a wide net. Authenticity was essential. Honor Kneafsey – [Robyn]) had worked in TV and film before. In contrast, Eva Whittaker – [Mehb]) had only performed school drama. We had to try not to look at the actor when they’re auditioning. How they come across on camera is one thing but how their voices work for animation is another. We looked at character designs and listened to the voices. We also observed the dynamic between the two. Isolating the voices is interesting for sure.

Madeline Di Nonno: Can you describe how the film is steeped in rich history?

Ross: In many ways, Wolfwalkers tells the story of colonizing Ireland. There has been a constant stream of colonizing forces that caused indigenous people to relocate. Still, they maintained their customs, dialects, traditions and simultaneously became native to and indigenous to the new territory.

Tomm: There is real hope, and we can look to the future together and learn from the people that were here before us.

Nora: It’s good to remember your past as that becomes part of storytelling. It is unusual to speak to a time in history in children’s films. Yet, it provides such great perspective to put yourself into the shoes of historic figures, even when they are fictional.”

Maria Pareja

Up Close
Maria Pareja: Art Direction

Maria Pareja is the Spanish-born, Irish-based Production Designer and Art Director of Wolfwalkers. The film’s look and artistic style are “masterful,” according to critics. The production is also unusual as it features hand-drawn animation instead of CGI and other forms of computer graphics.

Mary Ellen Holden: Why did you create such a complex and nuanced canvas?

Maria Pareja: We needed to create the feeling of two different worlds. Because of the variations in each part of the film’s style, it wasn’t always easy to make them feel like they were part of the same feature. So, there was a lot of work in making them different but still keeping the same essence of the movie. 

It was challenging to integrate the characters; they are very flat and need to fit in a very intricate watercolor/wood print style. In general, keeping it graphic, creating excellent compositions, and differentiate the two worlds either in backgrounds or characters.

Mary Ellen: What were the central themes of the film that you communicated artistically?

Maria: I think one of the important parts was to make the forest incredibly beautiful, rich, and alive. The forest needed to be that magical place that is starting to be destroyed; the audience suffers by seeing the destruction, and they want to protect it and keep it safe. Also, Robyn’s clean-up line change through all the movie reflects that aim for freedom, not to stick with what society tells you to be and be who you want to be. All that inner transformation is very present in the line of the movie.

Mary Ellen: What role did research play in the making of the film?

Maria: It was necessary, but I think we took many artistic licenses. For the town, well, we were surrounded by it, and there were quite a few places that show how Kilkenny was back then. Even the houses’ roofs that we could see from the studio’s windows were a big help/inspiration. 

We researched the forest’s flora and fauna; we took a few trips that helped the team understand what an Irish forest is (because most of us were from Mediterranean countries). But research is always helpful because it gives some realness to everything.

Mary Ellen: What makes Wolfwalkers a must-see for global audiences?

Maria: I think Wolfwalkers tells a lovely story with so many important, nowadays, messages. It talks about respecting nature in a moment that our planet needs it a lot, so it’s good that people question these things. It talks about women and the struggles back then, which resonates as today we have to confront these issues in society. It also encourages little girls all over the world to be brave and strong. I think it is a very original idea from the visual point of view. It is so important in animation that we keep exploring new ways of telling stories that are not only the usual “Disney 3D” (I have nothing against it, but variety is always good). In general, I think Wolfwalkers is an exceptionally beautiful movie, from story to style, that keeps you wanting to go to the forest and run free!

Mary Ellen: Is there anything that you’d like our audience to know?

Maria: Wolfwalkers has been incredible. Not only because of the project itself but because of the people involved. The Wolfwalkers crew has been like a big family, and I’ve learned so much from everyone that is overwhelming. A big shout out to the team!