I only became aware of Cartoon Saloon earlier this year, when I saw an advertisement for their third feature film Wolfwalkers and was blown away by what I saw. I knew straight away that this was a film that I needed to find the time to watch. Unfortunately, it got put to the bottom of my list of stuff to do until I saw the Irish Folklore Trilogy box-set, a new Blu-ray release that brings together the three films from Cartoon Saloon.
All of the films in this set are inspired by Celtic mythology, and tell tales that are completely and utterly Irish; celebrating the history, culture, and folklore of the nation in three beautifully made films.
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The first film in this new set is The Secret of Kells, which was originally released in 2009. Set during the 9th century, the story centres on a village trying to keep its people safe from the approaching Viking raiders by building a huge wall around them. Its here that we meet Brendan (Evan McGuire), a young boy living in the Abbey of Kells with his uncle, Abbot Callach (Brendan Gleeson). When the town is visited by a monk crafting the fabled Book of Iona, a beautifully made tome, Brendan becomes obsessed with learning to illuminate books the same way.
When he travels into the surrounding woods to find berries to make ink he is attacked by a pack of wolves, but is saved by a young fairy called Aisling (Christen Mooney). Together, Brendan and Aisling explore the woods, form a friendship, and set out on a quest to find a fabled artefact that can help Brendan with his goal to become an illuminator.
The Secret of Kells is a film that feels like the perfect introduction to what Cartoon Saloon is setting out to do with this trilogy. It’s stylistic, with a flair for the unusual in its animation and design, with strong characters and a beautiful soundtrack that come together to create a magical experience. The story is probably the simplest of the three, though it has some fantastical and otherworldly elements that expands this fairly focused little story into a world filled with magic and fairytale creatures.
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Out of the three, however, I think I enjoyed this one the least (not that it wasn’t good!). Things are a bit more stylised here than elsewhere in the trilogy, and certain elements feel odd in comparison to the other films. The animation isn’t as clean as the other movies, and the villains feel like ideas rather than characters thanks to how they’re animated and used. That being said, everything about this film is impressive.
The second film, Song of the Sea, is the most modern tale in this set, taking place in the 1980s. The story follows Ben (David Rawle), the son of lighthouse keeper Connor (Brendan Gleeson), and his little sister Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell). Having lost their mother when Saoirse was born, the two siblings have grown up together on a small island in their father’s lighthouse. In all that time Saoirse hasn’t said a word, and Ben struggles to be a good big brother to his little sister.
One night, on her birthday, Saoirse plays with the sea shell her mother left Ben, producing beautiful music that leads her to a small white coat hidden away in the closet. Putting it on, Saoirse sneaks out to play in the sea, where she transforms into a seal. Seeing what has happened, Connor takes the coat away from her, locking it away and casting it into the ocean before sending his children to stay with his mother on the mainland. Desperate to get back home, Ben and Saoirse set out to get back to the lighthouse, but along the way the two of them discover a host of magical creatures, some good, some bad, and learn a shocking truth about who Saoirse really is.
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I absolutely adored Song of the Sea. The story was much better than the first film, thanks in large part to the family focus of the relationship between Ben and Saoirse, and their journey together. Watching these two siblings and their relationship evolving over the course of the film was a genuine joy, and at times it really pulled on the heartstrings. The animation also felt like it had taken a big leap forwards. The character designs were a little bit more stylised than the first, and the kids felt like they’d stepped off the page of an illustrated children’s story. Coupled with some truly spectacular and magical looking moments as the world of the supernatural was discovered, this film is a visual delight.
The final film in the set is Wolfwalkers. Set in Ireland in 1650, it tells the story of Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) and her father Bill (Sean Bean), who travel to Kilkenny to help the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) to rid the nearby woods of wolves. When sneaking out of the town one day to follow her father, Robyn discovers a pack of wolves, led by a strange feral girl called Mebh (Eva Whittaker).
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Robyn discovers that Mebh and her mother are Wolfwalkers, people with the power to transform into magical wolves whilst their bodies sleep. Living alongside the wolves of the woods, the two of them have been preparing to leave the area thanks to the human expansion. However, Mebh’s mother has vanished, her wolf form having never come home. When Robyn is accidentally bitten by Mebh she ends up becoming a Wolfwalker too, and must now try to find a way of helping Mebh find her mother, as well as avoiding the hunters led by her father who will want to kill her.
Of the three films on offer here I absolutely loved Wolfwalkers the most. Of the three this is probably the film that feels the most like a traditional animated film, and fits into the mould laid out by studios like Disney. There’s a great villain in the form of the Lord Protector, a girl who doesn’t quite fit in, who has a faithful animal companion, a father who doesn’t understand her, a new life open before her, and the danger of everything being taken away. If you are wanting to tempt people into trying Cartoon Saloon’s films, this is the one to go with, because it feels so familiar, yet does so much fresh and wonderful things with the formula.
Wolfwalkers easily has the best animation of the three. Everything about it looks beautiful. The character designs are brilliant. The story is compelling and engrossing. The music is wonderful, and it has just the best use of the song ‘Running With The Wolves’ in what might be my favourite sequence in the film. It’s not just the best film of the trilogy, but is easily one of my new favourite animated films.
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The new collection comes packed with a host of extra features that make for fascinating viewing. There are breakdowns for how the animation was made for each film, some behind the scenes interviews for WolfWalkers, and a full length audio commentary for Song of the Sea. There’s also an extra disc that comes with the rough animatic versions of each of the films, complete with commentaries.
The set itself is also a thing of beauty, coming in a stylish cardboard set with beautiful artwork, a fold out holder for the discs, a double sided poster featuring all three films, art cards for the films, and a beautiful, glossy book that comes filled with artwork and behind the scenes images and writing about the movies.
Whether you’re new to this studio’s work or not, this is a box-set that is definitely worth paying attention to. The films included are wonderful pieces of art, and the set itself is a beautiful thing to have on your shelf. An absolute must buy.
Cartoon Saloon’s Irish Folklore Trilogy is out now on Blu-ray from Studiocanal.