Start the new year with a beautiful box set from a group of creative souls who are keeping traditions alive. It’s not just that the geniuses of Cartoon Saloon embrace the increasingly lost art of hand-drawn animation, but that they draw on classic storytelling concepts, using mythology to fuel their original stories. They have only released four films, but each of them is a captivating work of art on their own while also achieving a remarkable cumulative power when appreciated as a whole piece—a sequence of studies in how our history and our mythology connects to universal themes of today. They’re also simply beautiful films in terms of artwork, the kind of movies wherein a majority of paused frames could be hung on your wall. They look incredible in this box set, which also includes a poster, new special features, and a book of artwork that includes an informative and impassioned essay by Andrew Crump.
The Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon started life in 1999, founded by Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey, and Paul Young, starting work on what would be their first feature that same year. It would be a decade before “The Secret of Kells” was released in theatres, an imagining of the making of the Book of Kells from the 9th century. Directed by Moore and Twomey (and produced by Young), it’s set during the Viking expansion in Ireland in the 10th century, centering the story of a boy living in an abbey in Kells. (The narrative connections between this one and “Wolfwalkers” are striking when the trilogy can be watched consecutively in that both center stories of people trapped in their community with unknown forces outside the walls.)
The boy meets a fairy named Aisling, and the two work together to finish work on a legendary book that “turns darkness into light”. The Book of Kells is a book in Latin that collects the four Gospels of the New Testament while also drawing on Celtic mythology. The artists of Cartoon Saloon are using classic hand-drawn animation—a technique that was really disappearing in the 2000s as this film was in production—to tell a classic tale themselves. It’s a beautiful film about how legends are passed down over the generations, inspired by Celtic art, “The Thief and the Cobbler,” Hayao Miyazaki, and even “Mulan.” It announced Cartoon Saloon as a major creative force, landing them their first Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film (all four of their works have accomplished this, but they have yet to land their first win).
Sadly, “The Secret of Kells” was the only film that Roger Ebert was able to review, but he admired it for how much it stood out from the animated landscape, writing, “Indeed, in a season where animated images hurl themselves from the screen with alarming recklessness, I was grateful that these were content merely to be admired.”
It took five more years to make the second film in the “Irish Folklore Trilogy,” the gorgeous “Song of the Sea,” directed by Moore from a story by him, with screenwriting credit to Will Collins. The only contemporary film in the trilogy, it again centers a boy, this one named Ben. He discovers the truth about his mute sister Saoirse, who he blames for the death of their mother. It turns out that mom was a selkie, a creature from the sea. Once again, “Song of the Sea” is a beautiful piece of artwork—maybe my favorite of the three when it comes purely to imagery. The sharp lines of the characters are off-set against more painterly images in the background, ones in which you can almost see the brushstrokes.
This story has been told more than the others in the trilogy and has echoes of works like “The Secret of Roan Inish” and, more recently, “Undine,” but I appreciate the surreal artistry of the storytelling and craft here more than the script itself. It allows itself to be weird and surreal in ways that more animators should follow—it reminds me of LAIKA in that regard, another company that refuses to spell everything out for children. And it’s just a beautiful film in terms of art and score.
Cartoon Saloon broke up the trilogy with “The Breadwinner” in 2017 but returned to the world of mythology for their most acclaimed film to date, “Wolfwalkers,” a 2020 critical darling that nearly won the Oscar for Best Animated Film. Vibrant and daring in ways that U.S. animation for families feels like it hasn’t been for years, “Wolfwalkers” again centers a child, this one a girl named Robyn, who arrives with her father to a part of Ireland beset upon by wolves. Robyn meets a girl named Mebh, who happens to be able to turn into a wolf at night, and the craftsmanship and storytelling blend for one of the most captivating films of the 2020s. As I wrote after its TIFF premiere, “Textured in ways that family entertainment is rarely allowed to be and even more visually ambitious that the other Cartoon Saloon films, this is a special movie.”
The box set of The Irish Folklore Trilogy presents the three films with gorgeous transfers, but I do have to register one strong complaint. This is apparently the only way that “Wolfwalkers” is available on physical media, which is a slap in the face to the collectors who already have “The Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea” and just want to be able to close out the trilogy on their own. Hopefully, that decision is rectified soon and a standalone is released. Until then, pick up the “Irish Folklore Trilogy” and start the new year right. Get your copy at the link below and check out a list of the special features.
EXCLUSIVE 40-Page Book With Essay And Concept Artwork
EXCLUSIVE Folded Mini-Poster
EXCLUSIVE Animatics Of Each Film With Filmmaker Commentary
EXCLUSIVE Reading Of Pangur Bán By Mick Lally
EXCLUSIVE And More!
THE SECRET OF KELLS
Audio Commentary With Filmmakers
Voices Of Ireland
Aisling At The Oscars
SONG OF THE SEA
Audio Commentary With Filmmakers
Behind The Scenes
The Art Of Song Of The Sea