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Envelope Screening Series: ‘Wolfwalkers’ is a lush storybook come to life

Still from the animated film "Wolfwalkers."
(Courtesy of TIFF)
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The 2020-21 Envelope Screening Series kicked off Monday with a showing of the animated “Wolfwalkers,” sponsored by Apple TV+, and a Times virtual Q&A with its directors.

The film is another strong awards contender from Cartoon Saloon, the Irish animation studio that has scored Oscar nominations for each of its first three features. Codirected by Ross Stewart, an accomplished painter, and Saloon stalwart Tomm Moore (who directed the studio’s “The Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea”), the new film is equally notable for its adventure story, which riffs on Irish history and folklore, and its idiosyncratic visual beauty. Its images combine a strong geometric sense with the lush brushstrokes of a painted storybook.

Stewart said in the Q&A that “Wolfwalkers” leaned into Cartoon Saloon’s traditional-media approach: “For the printmaking, for the town, we did use actual lino prints and a lot of marker and ink lines. And then vice versa for the forest: We used a lot of watercolor on paper and as much paint as possible.”

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VIDEO | 01:49
‘Wolfwalkers’ directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart on their love of classic painted animation style

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Moore said, “I think the storybook thing gives it a timelessness too. I think CG animation dates really quickly ... when you use traditional media, you kind of get to stand beside something like ‘Bambi,’ where even though it’s from the 1940s, it has a timelessness because it’s painted. It’s handmade. It doesn’t change with the technology.”

In the new film, the people of a walled city live in fear of the monstrous wolves in the forest outside. Robyn, the young daughter of the hunter brought in to eradicate the wolves, meets another young girl among the trees: the feral (and awesome) Mebh. Mebh turns out to be a “wolfwalker,” one who communicates with the animals and can actually become one of them.

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A girl in 1700s Ireland discovers the truth about the world outside her city’s walls in “Wolfwalkers.”

The 1700s Ireland setting is significant because it was during the conquest of Ireland by Oliver Cromwell of England. One of the many marks Cromwell’s campaign left on the country was the enforced extinction of wolves there.

“We wanted to speak to things like extinction of species, the destruction of the environment, polarization of society; things that we were quite passionate about,” said Stewart.

“That was so relevant, even today, when we’re going through the mass extinction of species, globally, flora and fauna. It’s connected to colonization, it’s connected to a patriarchy over a matriarchy; nature vs. Puritan control ... and it was also a really fundamental part of Irish history that utterly changed society.”

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VIDEO | 02:34
‘Wolfwalkers’ directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart describe the history of the extermination of wolves in Ireland

Moore added, “The ‘wolves of Ossory’ was a load of stories from this area, Kilkenny, where we grew up ... I only found out about it as a teenager. Then we realized that, by losing the wolves, we were also losing some of our identity or something that was in the folklore, in the culture, in the tradition. So it wasn’t just the wolves that were exterminated; it was a whole mindset and way of existing.”

The Envelope screening of “Wolfwalkers” was sponsored by Apple TV+, which has no influence over editorial decisions, including the content of this Q&A.