How 'Wolfwalkers,' One of the Most Stunning Animated Movies of 2020, Got Made

The movie, streaming on Apple TV+, is a marvel of hand-drawn animation inspired by real Irish history.

wolfwalkers
Apple TV+

Wolfwalkers may very well be the best-animated movie of the approaching Oscars season. That's a bold statement, to be sure, but considering the amount of creative energy, authenticity, and attention to every hand-drawn detail that went into Cartoon Saloon's latest release—the same company behind The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner—we're going to stand by it.  

The story takes us to the year 1650 and the town of Kilkenny, Ireland. The city, which is led by Oliver Cromwell, aka the Lord Protector, faces an enduring problem: wolves. Cromwell's goal of clearing the woods for farming purposes leads to calling in some outside support. Enter highly skilled wolf hunter Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean). The man, and his young daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), are brought over from England to help with ridding the land of the animals. The trouble really kicks off when Bill heads out of the city to do his brutal work, leaving Robyn to fend for herself. And knowing no one in this new home leaves the girl to do some exploring outside the city walls. This is where she meets Mebh (Eva Whittaker). The feisty young Wolfwalker ends up challenging her view of the world, her father, and even herself. 

According to co-directors Ross Stewart and Tom Moore, Wolfwalkers, which debuted on Apple TV+ at the end of 2020, is based on real events that transpired right in their hometown. It's a history lesson chock full of timely themes—cultural polarization, the threat of tyranny, and mass animal extinction, to name a few. And it's all told through a gorgeous melange of two-dimensional, hand-drawn art. It's all a bit breathtaking, to say the least.

Thrillist sat down with Stewart and Moore to learn a thing or two about their Oscar contender. Along the way, the two discuss the movie's wood-cut animation style, and its enduring emotional appeal, the absolutely real historical events that inspired the story they're telling, and the lessons they hope the audience will take away upon watching Wolfwalkers

wolfwalkers
Apple TV+

Thrillist: The story of Wolfwalkers is inspired by history and Irish lore. Can you tell me about the inspiration for the movie?
Ross Stewart:
Oliver Cromwell came over and actually invaded our town [of Kilkenny] that we live in now. It was in 1650 and he camped outside of the town because there was a plague happening inside it. When he came over with this invasion, he had a couple of things in mind, and one of them was to make wolves extinct. 

He put out a bounty for every wolf head that was delivered to all of his Marshalls and Sergeants: Whoever brought in a male wolf head was paid five pounds, whoever brought in a female wolf head was paid six pounds, and a cub was a pound. And then, a Catholic priest's head was five pounds. So it was a pretty dark time in Irish history. 

Tom Moore: He was known as Lord Protector. He was the guy who killed King Charles I and invented parliamentary democracy, as it were. So in England, he's a bit of a hero. There's a statue of him outside the houses of Parliament. But here in Ireland, he's [sort of] our Adolf Hitler.  

That's an unfortunate legacy.
Stewart:
He is the biggest Irish villain in Irish history. Oh, another thing he did after he got back to Ireland is he canceled Christmas. 

So he was also the real-life embodiment of Ebenezer Scrooge?
Stewart:
He thought Christmas was too much fun and that people should be praying instead of having fun. 

The woodcut aesthetic of the drawings in your movie taps right into a sense of nostalgia I wasn't expecting. What is it that makes Wolfwalkers fit so well with that 2D hand-drawn, old-school animation style?
Moore: There's something kind of timeless about hand-drawn animation in that it has a value. You remember drawings. And in every generation, illustrated books and comics are a part of growing up. I think hand-drawn animation speaks to the language of comics and illustrated books rather than live-action or CG animation. I think there's an expressiveness to hand-drawn animation. 

Stewart: There's this hand-made organic-ness to it. There are little mistakes in there, naturally, when someone is drawing a background or drawing a character; there'll be little mistakes. And it's similar to when you get a handmade mug and there's a thumbprint in it, or something, that's a little bit wrong, that you go, "This was actually made by a person!" As opposed to it being absolutely perfect or robotic. I think that's an aesthetic that people really appreciate.

Moore: We've really tried to push it with Wolfwalkers. We tried to get into the way we drew everything to have an expressive aspect and put the emotional effect in the viewer. Maybe even, subconsciously, they might notice that the artist, when he's drawing a character when they're angry, he uses angry lines and [they] really think about what the character's feeling. It comes out through their hand and it comes out through their brush strokes and the pencil strokes. Even if they flick by it at 100 frames per second, I think the audience picks up on it. 

wolfwalkers
Apple TV+

The movie takes place centuries ago and yet the topics that you explore feel absolutely relevant to many things going on in the world right now: humanity vs. nature, political and cultural division, tyranny vs. empathy. Which of the movie's themes is the most important for each of you? And what are you hoping the audience takes away from their viewing experience watching the movie?
Stewart:
I think the one thing from the start that has been really powerful for me has been the mass extinction of species. Not just fauna, but flora and fauna all across the world, and it's all more or less human-driven. It's something I've been really passionate about. I really hope the next generation picks up on that once a species is gone, it's gone for good. And, not alone, do we lose everything connected with that on an animal level and environment level, but also on a human level, too. Imagine if your daughter picks up a book in years' time and there's a rhino and she goes, "What's that?" because there are none of them left. Once something is extinct, it's forever. And we shouldn't let that happen if at all possible.

Do you think if more people viewed this issue as a human problem that more action would be taken to battle this crisis?
Moore:
Yeah. I think so. But also I remember, when I was a kid, I was in Northern Ireland, and I had a direct experience with that polarization—the idea that Catholics don't talk to Protestants and Protestants don't talk to Catholics. I will always remember playing with a kid in the playground and their older brother coming up asking if I was a Catholic or a Protestant before we could continue playing together. 

I think that's what's going on in different forms all around the world. Where we have Robyn and Mebh on two different sides of the fence, maybe that's the historical precedent that left us in the situation we're in here with Northern Ireland. I think all around the world, there's this polarization and I just hope the kids can see past the stupid shit the adults use to divide themselves up and are able to see we have more in common than in difference.  

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Aaron Pruner (@aaronflux) is a contributor to Thrillist.