Cartoon Saloon: The Next Animation Powerhouse

Cartoon Saloon has just released its third film, The Breadwinner. The fantasy film follows The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, all three of which have been nominated for best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards. The film is the first to be solely directed by Nora Twomey, who had previously co-directed the studio’s first feature film, The Secret of Kells, with studio co-founder Tomm Moore. It is also a departure for the studio in terms of its setting, moving from Irish folklore to a heart-breaking story of Taliban controlled Afghanistan with a highly imaginative and charming impression of middle eastern storytelling. However the concerns of the film, of children and magic and mythology and darkness, are very consistent with the studio’s previous masterpieces.

1. The Look

Perhaps the easiest thing to appreciate about the studio is the unique visual style that is every bit as recognisable yet versatile as the Japanese animation giant, Studio Ghibli. The studio utilises hand drawn animation and striking use of colour and style. There’s always an attempt to reference the aesthetic style of the subject matter. Most notably their first film, The Secret of Kells, is illustrated to look like the illuminated Christian tome come to life in vivid colours and with very flat blocking. The Effect is gorgeous. There is an integrity between how the films look and their thematic concerns. In The Breadwinner a subdued animation style portrays the tough world the characters inhabit, whilst gorgeously stylised aesthetic brings life to the character’s fantasies. There’s a great intimacy to the human characters rendered on screen and an exquisite ambition to the fantasy and action sequences. There’s an energy and playful creativity to the animation that is at once distinct from yet reminiscent of Studio Ghibli and the best of hand-drawn Disney.

2. The Worlds

This animation would be purely superficially pleasing if not for the rich lore that is evoked throughout the films. The Celtic mythology present in The Secret of Kells and The Song of the Sea is richly detailed and fascinating. Encounters with Gods, Selkies, and Faeries are enchanting. The films all cultivate a sense of wonder. It’s a mythology that is at once familiar, as many aspects have trickled down into popular culture, yet captivatingly new.

3. The Charm

All three films concern children and their impression of often very dark worlds. There is a playful humour to all three films. An early sequence in The Secret of Kells sees the young boy, Brandon, run through his village, causing chaos as he goes. It’s a fairly conventional action beat for the first part of a family film, that allows for some excitement whilst also exploring the setting and it’s inhabitants. These films may be daring in what they are willing to explore and innovative in their animation style, but they are also crowd pleasing and will not fail to make audiences laugh as well as cry.

4. The Darkness

There’s an apocalyptic feeling to the three films. Each world is in some way threatened. Vikings are coming to destroy the village, a sea deity wants to turn the world to stone, and the war threatens to engulf the weakened family. The disturbing darkness of the fantasies allow the truly upsetting forces of grief, war or oppression, which figure regularly in the films, to be palatable in such a sweetly rendered world. This makes them ideal family films, as the ultimate catharsis when good, in some way, triumphs over evil is all the more satisfying to know the cost at which victory came. The film maintains a child’s perspective which makes the tragic or dark elements all the more disturbing, and yet also affords a child’s innocence and good-nature to become comforting presence in the narratives.

5. The Storytelling

In each of the three films, storytelling is a primary concern. Elders tell stories to their children and the children continue them, bringing new energy to beautiful tradition. All three films feel like an extension of a grand storytelling tradition that stretches beyond film. These are yarns or tall tales told on a scope and with a style that makes them utterly unique. Perhaps it is in developing its own unique voice that Cartoon Saloon is, ironically, most like Studio Ghibli.

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