Studio Ghibli is arguably the most recognizable and beloved animated studio outside of Disney/Pixar, one that has proven time and time again that animation is more than just entertainment aimed at kids thanks to critically acclaimed movies that challenge what you can do in the medium. So it’s easy to understand, then, that the moment one of the studio’s main directors, Hayao Miyazaki decided to retire (the first time), fans around the world began searching for a successor. Rather than a studio, could it be an auteur like Mamoru Hosoda (Summer Wars, Mirai) or Makoto Shinkai (Your Name, Weathering with You)? Would it be a studio founded by former Ghibli employees like Studio Ponoc, makers of 2018’s Mary and the Witch’s Flower?
It might, in fact, be none of the above. In truth, the animation studio that best captures the magic of Studio Ghibli and the themes they explore, all while carving out an identity and space in the industry of its own, is Cartoon Saloon. The Irish studio founded in 1999 has earned Academy Awards nominations for every single feature film it’s produced, and all of them are Certified Fresh at 90% or above on the Tomatometer. Its latest offering, Wolfwalkers, is being called the best animated film of the year by several critics, and it demonstrates why Cartoon Saloon’s unique blend of traditional animation and folklore make it the true successor to Studio Ghibli.
You don’t need to be familiar with yōkai or kodama to appreciate Princess Mononoke, and you certainly don’t need to know what a tanuki is in order to enjoy Pom Poko, but with both, you certainly do get the feeling that you’re watching a movie that’s deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Hayao Miyazaki and the people at Studio Ghibli don’t really adapt specific folktales the way Disney does, but they add creatures and beliefs as flavor to deepen the story and the cultural context. My Neighbor Totoro’s titular character may not be based on any specific creature of lore, but he is still instantly recognizable as an uniquely Japanese being.
The movies of Cartoon Saloon aren’t direct adaptations of any particular tales either, but they incorporate folkloric creatures and beliefs. Wolfwalkers takes its central concept from old myths about natives of the Kilkenny region in Ireland being able to transform into wolves while their bodies lie in a sort of trance, while Song of the Sea is about selkies, or humans that could transform into seals. These two movies, as well as the studio’s feature debut The Secret of Kells, make up an unofficial trilogy about Irish folklore, using legends and myths to tell fantastical stories about the conflict that arises when belief and tradition are threatened or abandoned.
Even if The Secret of Kells and Wolfwalkers are period pieces steeped in important moments of Irish history, there is a universality to their stories. You don’t need to know about Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland to understand Wolfwalkers’ central conflict and how it affects its main character’s relationship with her father — who works for Cromwell himself. But it does add some context that grounds the film in a real place and a real moment in time.
As evident even in their earliest films, a big part of Ghibli movies is the focus on humanity’s fragile relationship with the environment and the struggle between nature and industrial progress. Miyazaki’s films in particular often explore how technology causes people to drift away from their cultural traditions while factories damage the land they live on. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Princess Mononoke, a movie all about nature fighting back when humans start burning down forests to expand their towns and their industry.
Song of the Sea is partially about a Celtic goddess who threatens to destroy the world, but director Tomm Moore uses that as a starting point to tell a story about what happens when people begin to lose their cultural identity. Like many a Miyazaki film, Song of the Sea depicts the city as an oppressive, dirty place that drowns the freedom of the country and its children as the ones who are best suited carry on the country’s cultural heritage while the city’s inhabitants forget about it.
Wolfwalkers definitely takes some pointers from Princess Mononoke in its central conflict — a group of humans who set out to kill every wolf in the nearby woods — except the “nature vs. industry” conflict is used as an allegory for the Cromwellian ideal of taming the wild Irish lands and burning down traditions to replace them with English principles. As with Song of the Sea, the distinction between the city and the country informs the visual style as well. Kilkenny and its walls are drawn with geometric rigidity, and it almost resembles a prison as it looms in the background — just like the city cars in Song of the Sea, which only serve to spew black smoke and narrowly avoid hitting innocent children. Meanwhile, the art style of the woods, trees, and wolf of the forest are more sketched-out, with traditional Celtic spiral pattens to show the wolves haven’t been tamed, for they represent the “real” cultural Ireland.
As a studio grows and its films become more popular, a visual style is bound to emerge. Anyone can recognize Disney’s particular trademarks, just as all of Pixar films take on a similar visual language. Studio Ghibli’s films are instantly recognizable too, and yet they all feel and look incredibly different from each other. This balance between versatility and recognizability is the key to Cartoon Saloon.
The Irish studio’s unique visual style appears in every one of their movies, which feel like they belong in a strange sort of multiverse. At a time when CG animation is everywhere, Cartoon Saloon’s style feels defiant and stunning, but each of their films feels distinct from one another, as they try to capture the aesthetic of their subject matter. The Secret of Kells feels like an illustrated picture book to mimic the illuminated Christian tome that gives it its name, whereas The Breadwinner looks and feels distinctly like Afghan art, and Wolfwalkers pays homage to the wood-cut illustrations of the 1600s. By now, you know how to recognize a Cartoon Saloon film, but they always manage to offer some surprises, too.
Though animation has a bit of a reputation for being kids’ entertainment in the West, Studio Ghibli is a perfect example of why this is entirely untrue. Not only do their more kid-friendly movies like Kiki’s Delivery Service tackle deeper and darker subjects like depression, but no one would dare call Grave of the Fireflies — a movie about two kids trying to survive in Japan during WWII — a kids movie.
Similarly, Cartoon Saloon’s movies are certainly entertainment made for broader audiences, but they also often go to darker places. The studio’s debut film, The Secret of Kells deals with an incoming Viking invasion, and Song of the Sea‘s main theme is grief and loss, but they are still stories being told through the eyes of kids. The protagonist of Wolfwalkers is literally hunted by her father at one point, but it’s The Breadwinner, the studio’s third feature, that best exemplifies their diversity in storytelling. The film follows a young Afghan girl posing as a boy to help her family survive after her father is imprisoned as a dissident by the ruling Taliban. This film is clearly aimed at a slightly older audience — hence its PG-13 rating — as it explores a more mature subject matter in its war-torn world, and even the colors are more naturalistic compared to the rest of the studio’s filmography.
It’s not only that Cartoon Saloon’s movies can get dark, it’s that the worlds of the films feel like they’re approaching a cataclysmic ending, even as they somehow remain optimistic about the future.
A village is threatened by Vikings coming to destroy it; a little girl is engulfed in a war; a sea deity wants to turn the world to stone; the new people in charge want to burn the forest down. There’s a sense of urgency and doom looming large over each of Cartoon Saloon’s feature films, brought upon by the hubris of man — a theme the studio shares with Ghibli. Hayao Miyazaki’s movies in particular often deal with the error of trusting mankind to treat the world with respect. And yet, both studios seem to deeply trust their young protagonists and believe that children are the ones who will save the Earth. Parvana faces horrible, horrible things in The Breadwinner, but in her own small way, she wins in the end. War and evil will continue and people will still reject wolves and nature, but at least the children will be all right and grow up to do incredible things, hopefully with the lessons they’ve learned throughout their journeys in both Studio Ghibli’s and Cartoon Saloon’s films firmly rooted in their hearts.