Blue Filter: Cartoon Saloon And The Power Of Storytelling

Cartoon Saloon

In our Blue Filter series, we are inviting our writers to reflect on the films that they have connected with through challenging or upsetting times, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and before. In the latest entry of the series, Deputy Film Editor Jake Abatan shares how Cartoon Saloon gave him a new perspective on the power of storytelling. 

It’s no wonder many have found solace in stories during the past year. Stories often lead us towards salvation or triumph. They act as a source of comfort in hard times and entertain us when we need leisure. Stories also play an important part in the films of Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon. For them, folktales are more than just an expression of the world through metaphor. They are an integral part of the very world we live in. 

When I was first introduced to Cartoon Saloon, watching a remote screening of their latest feature Wolfwalkers in bed as part of the London Film Festival last year, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Already having relied on films as my main source of entertainment throughout seven months of lockdown, I was beginning to feel a little jaded. Being cooped up in my room watching film after film was no longer fun. Thankfully, Wolfwalkers was exactly the film I needed to kick me out of this slump; a powerful, joyous film that also engages with Ireland’s history as a colonised nation. 

Set during England’s colonisation of Ireland in the 17th century, Wolfwalkers follows Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), a young English girl who wants nothing more than to be a hunter just like her father (Sean Bean). The two live in the English-occupied Kilkenny, with Robyn’s father tasked with clearing the local forest of wolves. It’s through this set up that the story deals with England’s attempts to “tame this wild land.”

Colonisation is bleak subject matter, and the film brilliantly manages to reflect this whilst sustaining a child-friendly tone. A lot of this is down to the animation; the oppressiveness of occupied Ireland can be felt in the geometric shapes and harsh lines used to paint it. Prison bars are a dominant feature in Kilkenny, both literally and in increasingly impressive visual metaphors. But amidst a web of iron and shadow, Wolfwalkers manages to reclaim this dark chapter of Ireland’s history through the lens of folklore. 

All the dark oppressive imagery of Kilkenny is in stark contrast to the forest outside. Lush greenery populated by all manner of wildlife awaits Robyn as she sneaks past the city walls each day. The forest is also home to magical beings, known to locals as the wolfwalkers. These creatures walk as humans by day and take the form of wolves as they sleep. They also have restorative powers, which put them in stark contrast with the English and their destruction. 

To the townsfolk, the wolfwalkers are just a legend. For Robyn however, experiencing the world through their eyes is enough to alter her perspective and give her a closer relationship with nature. Part of what makes the forest so idyllic are the free-flowing lines that are used to animate it. Expressive brushstrokes and rounded curves highlight the natural beauty of the woodland as well as the freedom of this natural space. Cartoon Saloon are also evoking an idea of Irish history here as something cut down by English colonisers, and now cultivated by the animation studio through their art. 

It goes without saying, Wolfwalkers left a big impression on me. Yet it wasn’t until the Ghibliotheque podcast (normally dedicated to Studio Ghibli and which I cannot recommend enough) did a deep dive on Cartoon Saloon that I became acquainted with their other films. Everything that I loved about Wolfwalkers was true for the rest of their features, and better yet I found The Secret of KellsSong Of The Sea, and The Breadwinner went even further in their embrace of folklore. I was blown away by the intricate storytelling present within each of these films, all three using stories within stories to masterful effect. 

Related: Blue Filter: The Magic Of Studio Ghibli

The Secret of Kells depicts the creation of The Book of Kells and finds in the wake of an inevitable Viking raid that art is the only thing we can count on to endure. Song of the Sea is a tale about grief that finds hope in how folktales can guide us through heartache. And in The Breadwinner, stories allow us to confront the harshness of reality and help us to overcome trauma. 

What I learned from all of these stories is that ruin is inevitable, and to try and delay such ruin is naïve. Art, culture, and the stories we tell are what truly endures and drives us to carry on throughout challenging times. A trend up to this point in the Blue Filter series has been how the stories of our childhood provide a source of escape in moments of struggle, and in a way, the films of Cartoon Saloon have provided this for me. But they’ve also given me something much more valuable—a renewed appreciation of what art can do for us. 

Words by Jake Abatan.

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