Animating a Tale of Empathy: 'THR Presents' Q&A With 'Wolfwalkers' Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart

The story follows a young girl whose father is forced to hunt wolves by an authoritarian leader: "We very quickly hit on this idea of telling this story of people on opposite sides being able to see each other's point of view, and it's only become more and more relevant."

Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart describe their latest film, Wolfwalkers — the first original animated feature from Apple TV+, which also had a limited theatrical release through GKIDS — in a new episode of THR Presents.

The third in Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon’s “Celtic folklore trilogy” — following 2009’s The Secret of Kells and 2014’s Song of the Sea, both of which were Oscar nominated and directed by Moore — Wolfwalkers is set in 1650 Kilkenny and follows a young English girl named Robyn whose father is forced to hunt wolves by authoritarian leader Lord Protector. Then she befriends a girl named Mebh, who is part of a tribe rumored to transform into wolves at night.

The story, which took some inspiration from Irish folklore and history, is thematically about empathy. “We very quickly hit on this idea of telling this story of people on opposite sides being able to see each other’s point of view, and it’s only become more and more relevant,” says Moore. “We thought, what if a little child of a hunter became the thing he is hunting and also becomes friends with one of the creatures they were hunting? ... And these themes just become stronger: environmentalism, empathy, polarization between people and how kids can sometimes see past that."

He adds of these themes, "Nature isn’t something for us to decide whether we want to protect or not. When we lose species and their habitats, we start to see the chaos that we are already seeing around us. Our invasion of wild habitats is a big part of where the pandemic has come from. I just hope that, whether it's warring human tribes or our attitude toward animals or species and the biosphere, I hope that there's some kind of inspiration that maybe we can come together and heal it rather than keep on dividing ourselves.”

In THR Presents, Moore and Stewart discuss the story, as well as the hand-drawn visual language and character design (and how the movie was completed remotely amid the pandemic). The animation uses an angular and blocky style to convey the oppressiveness of the town and a wilder look to convey the freedom of the forest, while using similar principles in the character designer of the townspeople and Wolfwalkers. Protagonist Robyn is angular and becomes more expressive and free as the story progresses, "so her shape language and visual language goes on the same journey as her character," relates Stewart.

Moore adds of Robyn: "She's the kind of strong, activist, outspoken young person that we are inspired by — think of Greta Thunberg or somebody like that. She’s the kind of powerful young woman I  think the world needs at the moment and that we are all going to turn to as the years go on."

Since the village in the film is based on Kilkenny, where Cartoon Saloon is based, the filmmakers did include some elements that were personal. Reveals Stewart, “We were sure to sneak in a few establishments that we frequent in the backgrounds and people that we know in the backgrounds.”