The Best of Irish Animation

Ireland’s contribution to American animation can often be overlooked, but Irish cartoon features have begun to win well-earned recognition in recent years. Last year’s Wolfwalkers was met with nearly universal critical acclaim, and according to one of its producers, The Secret of Kells made more of a splash internationally than at home. But not every great piece of animation made in Ireland has traveled so far, even in this digital age. Here are seven such cartoon gems, from the big and small screen, and where to watch them.

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Song of the Sea (2014)

The Secret of Kells and Wolfwalkers mark the beginning and end of a loose trilogy from writer/director, Tomm Moore, with each entry drawing on elements of Irish folklore. The middle child is Song of the Sea. Besides their shared cultural tradition, the three films feature young people with close bonds to supernatural beings, well-meaning but harmful father figures, and the music of Bruno Coulais and folk group, Kíla. But Song of the Sea is in some ways the most unique of the three. It’s the only one with a relatively contemporary setting (the 1980s). It’s a different visual experience, not as intricate as Kells or as sketchy as Wolfwalkers. Instead, there’s an emphasis on the qualities of watercolor, artfully manipulated with modern technology. And there’s an initial bitterness to the story of Song of the Sea that isn’t in the other two Moore films; the disappearance of the family matriarch, Bronagh, on the night of childbirth leaves her husband broken, and drives her oldest child Ben to take out his grief and rage on his little sister, Saoirse. It’s Ben’s slow acceptance of his sister through their mystical adventure that opens the door to a healthy acceptance of that grief and provides the heart of an often melancholy but beautiful film.

Where To Watch: You can rent or buy Song of the Sea on Amazon Prime or Apple TV.

Puffin Rock (2015-2016)

The Irish folklore trilogy of Tomm Moore was produced by Cartoon Saloon, the studio Moore co-founded with Paul Young and Nora Twomey. But lyrical, emotionally-complex folk tales aren’t the only things made at Cartoon Saloon. They’re the studio behind Puffin Rock, a children’s program centered around the brother/sister team of Oona and Baba. They’re puffins, naturally, who make their home on a little rock based on the real-life Puffin Island off the coast of Ireland. Oona and Baba stumble into and out of various adventures on the island and its waters, imparting lessons to young viewers on family, friendship, and the natural world. Co-created by Moore and Young with Lily Bernard, Puffin Rock eschews outlines in its character design, offering a clean look with a subdued, naturalistic color scheme. It's also narrated by Chris O'Dowd (Bridesmaids, The IT Crowd). The show aired on Nick Jr. in the UK, and a feature film was announced in 2019.

Where To Watch: You can stream Puffin Rock on Netflix.

The Breadwinner (2017)

On the other end of the Cartoon Saloon spectrum lies The Breadwinner, based on a novel of the same name by Deborah Ellis. Technically, the film was a co-production with Canada’s Aircraft Pictures and Luxembourg’s Melusine Productions, with Angelina Jolie as an executive producer. But Cartoon Saloon’s Nora Twomey served as director. It’s a sobering look at the plight of one family under the Taliban’s Afghanistan before the outbreak of war in 2001. The look of the characters is in the same general design family as the studio’s Irish tales, and a story-within-the-story done in a cut-out style offers the heroine, Parvana, some relief from the harsh world around her. But fantasy can’t bleed into reality here; to survive, Parvana must rely on her wits, her talents, and a few very good friends. The Breadwinner isn’t the type of story usually told in animation, but Twomey’s careful pacing and a brilliant voice cast help it deliver a powerful experience through the form.

Where To Watch: You can rent The Breadwinner through YouTube or Amazon Prime, where it is also available for purchase.

Cúl an Tí (2016)

Besides illustrating Irish folklore through their films, Cartoon Saloon have done their part to promote the Irish language. In 2016, they partnered with free-to-air Irish station, TG4, on a live-action/animated miniseries that traveled the country, celebrating songs and poems in the native tongue. In the live-action portion, presented, Pól Ó Ceannabháin, visited schools, conducting interviews with students, educators, and musicians. Cartoon Saloon’s role was to animate the music featured on the series, with each segment handled by a different director (their names are all listed on the studio’s website). This allowed for a wide variety of looks and tones, with additional input sometimes coming from the students interviewed on the series. Cúl an Tí can be intimidating at first to non-Irish speakers, but its aims are noble, and the animation goes a long way to make the songs and the language accessible.

Where To Watch: The entire series is available to view through TG4.

The Green Marker Scare (2012)

There is more to Irish animation than Cartoon Saloon – more than the output of an organized studio. The independent director, Graham Jones, has made several films on contemporary subjects concerning Irish youth. In 2012, he wrote and directed The Green Marker Scare, a psychological horror film about a young woman who investigates her father’s murder and finds a diabolical cult at the center of it all. It’s a grisly and rather pulpy story, but that’s not what’s remarkable about the film. Jones had the entire film done as green lines on white, and everything in it was drawn by children. A disclaimer at the front of the film stresses that none of the children knew that they were working on a horror picture. Jones says working with children was a “stylistic decision.” Being the work of child artists and a small indie crew, The Green Marker Scare isn’t the most polished animated film ever made, and it can sometimes be difficult to follow what’s going on. The subject matter is not for the faint of heart either. But it is a fascinating experiment in what animation can do.

Where To Watch: Jones has released the film in its entirety on his YouTube channel.

Bug Diaries (2019-2020)

Bug Diaries was the first series for Lighthouse Studios, an Irish-Canadian joint venture. It was produced by Amazon Studios, based on the children’s books by Doreen Cronin. Lighthouse provided production services for the adventures of Fly, Spider, and Worm as they make sense of a big world that’s even bigger from their buggy vantage point. The animation is nice and fluid, and the character designs are a fair approximation of Harry Bliss’s illustrations for Cronin’s books. Bug Diaries makes for solid children’s programming, and a great showcase for what Irish studios like Lighthouse can offer.

Where To Watch: You can find Bug Diaries on Amazon Prime.

Captain Morten and the Spider Queen (2018)

It’s not unusual for animated films made in Europe to become international co-productions. Captain Morten and the Spider Queen was directed by Estonian filmmaker, Kaspar Jancis, with partners in Belgium and the UK. But the cast is all Irish, and the film was the first stop motion feature with animation produced in Ireland, by Galway-based studio, Telegael. Captain Morten is less a coming-of-age tale than a lesson in confidence and compassion, with echoes of Pinocchio and Alice in Wonderland thrown into the mix. It's a variation on the old theme of a boy finding parallels between the characters populating his fantastic experiences and his humdrum life back home. Cian Patrick O’Dowd, the young man voicing Morten, is an engaging lead for a talented cast, and there’s a sly and steady tone to the film that nicely underplays some of its more horrific implications. There’s pirate treasure. There’s a giant cricket with a magic gun that sticks the title character in trouble. And there’s a set of delightful puppets expertly animated to get over a spirited adventure.

Where To Watch: You can find Captain Morten and the Spider Queen on Amazon Prime.

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William Fischer (39 Articles Published)

William Fischer is a writer, artist, and filmmaker from Nebraska, currently studying animation in Ireland while writing for Collider. His art and short stories have appeared in "Intergalactic Medicine Show," "Bards and Sages Quarterly," and "Another Realm" e-zine. Outside the arts, William enjoys cooking, baking, and fencing (Olympic saber and rapier).

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