Tomm Moore: an Irish Wizard

On December 11, Tomm Moore's third full-length film Wolfwalkers (2020) will be released on Apple TV. The film is the last part of the "Irish" trilogy — film series based on Irish mythology. In this article we are going to talk about two of Moore's previous works.

by Victoria Ilenko


I thought I'd start off by saying: how great and surprising that such an original work was so well received. I would tell about the Oscar nominations, about the fact that many people have at least heard about Moore's works. But it's not like that. His works don't pay off and certainly are not comparable in recognition to the hits of recent years. Moore is often compared to Miyazaki, but it's a flawed comparison. It's better to compare Moore to Isao Takahata, the co-founder of Studio Ghibli. His truly subtle, quiet works didn't become as well-known as the Howl's Moving Castle (2004) or Spirited away (2001). (And in general, what is the reason for this eternal desire to compare everyone with someone, the "new" Miyazaki, the "old" one, is there no deception in it and something alien to all these creators?)
When after watching, you think about this film, you are surprised at the choice of the topic.
Moore took not a familiar story, and not even a little-known myth. He based his film on the story of a wonderful medieval book with extraordinary illustrations. Throughout the animated film you can feel the delight of the people who worked on it – so much attention is paid to the backgrounds which are echoing medieval miniatures. Sometimes it seems that the whole work is a dream of a person who saw the book of Kells and dreamed of it coming to life.
A bigger surprise is the attitude towards the monuments of the past which are shown in the film. Kells' book is not perceived as something indestructible that needs to be preserved. Quite the opposite – it is emphasized that the book was created not by angels, but by ordinary people using their imagination. And the protective consciousness is clearly ridiculed in the figure of the abbot. He wanted to prove his faith by building high walls against vikings. "The book should not be hidden behind walls," says Brother Aidan.
Song of the Sea is a lyrical film about imagination and childhood experiences. And who, after watching, did not hum Saoirse's song for several more days? Three themes of the film draw attention to themselves: duality, the connection between dreams and reality, the reduplication of the big world in the chamber world. Essentially, these are all just features of one phenomenon.
The Secret of Kells (2008) is Moore's manifesto on how he sees art. If you mentally disassemble the plot, it will become clearer what the director intended to express - the book was made in the union of man with nature. The nuts of a hard-to-reach tree were used for this book; Brendan had to make friends with the spirit of nature in order to be able to illustrate the book. The eye of the creation of darkness became the stone needed for illustrations. And when you think about it, you realize that this is a very interesting idea. The Book of Kells must, in the words of Brother Aiden, "bring light to people". And in order to bring light, it was necessary to overcome the darkness.
Duality begins at the very beginning of the animated film. The frame moves and changes like a kaleidoscope, everything is rounded. The film opens not with a picture of the past, but with the memory of a boy. The whole cartoon can be perceived in two ways: as a fairy tale or as the world of a boy with trauma. And these two positions are so inseparable. Is it true that
Maha is the same grandmother, Mac Lir, who flooded the ocean with his tears - is he a father grieving for his wife?
Moore, of course, created "evil" and "good" characters, but "goodness" and "evilness" in his films are so conditional. Maha does a lot of typically "wrong" things, but then her actions are explained. She could not see her son's sufferings, she wanted to take his grief away. Bronagh says to Ben: "Remember me in your stories and songs." And he could remember the fairy tales that his mother read to him at night, he could think of his sister as a selkie so that he could feel less lonely. But if we think so, if we take out all the miracles, we just spit in the face of Tomm Moore and Ben. In "Song" the director created not a simple film for children, but explored the psychology of a small child, the very essence of a fairy tale. Magic helps to better understand the world, but it is wonderful in the way it is.

The lack of unambiguity is manifested in the choice of an era. Although the action takes place in the time of tape recorders with cassettes, Moore choses "modernity". Not the 19th century, and certainly not the Middle Ages, as in The Secret of Kells. The world was depicted differently – timelessly. We can substitute any era: 15th, 19th centuries, and nothing would change.
I remember films where folklore seems to be just a decoration, a background, an interesting addition to the main plot. But in Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells, it is an organic part of the film. You cannot exchange selkies for another creature, much less – replace the Book of Kells with another manuscript. Everything will change completely. Moore's folklore is alive. He bypasses all these mermaids, snow whites and other common characters and places. Moore is not afraid to work with untouched stories, explore them and show them to the public. Even for such courage, he deserves more attention.

A few words must be said about the director's visual style. His films are almost devoid of perspective, Moore says that perspective only occurs when his characters are in danger. Often we see a kind of "cut" of the earth - not the surface, but all its layers. So the shots are even more complete, we see and know more about their world. When Saoirse and Ben are walking on the field and somewhere far away in a burrow animals are sleeping – a little, but pleasant detail.
The world seems to be intimate. Maybe this is how all the stories about selkies were composed –
by lonely people, villagers sitting by the sea long time ago. What if all these stories were preserved by boys and girls who remembered their mothers' night stories? The huge world of fairies, magical creatures seems to be a continuation of their private, ordinary-extraordinary life.
Of course, Moore experimented with his style more in The Secret of Kells – after all, this film is dedicated to the book and the illustration. The rounded miniatures move, come to life, and the depicted "reality" itself obeys the style of this mysterious manuscript. At times, in Moore's works you can see similarities with symbolists, not only with medieval miniaturists. I recall the works of John Bauer, his long and straight trees, thin glowing girls, amiable trolls and his use of dreamy coloring.
For a person who loves old art and symbolism, Moore has become something of a proof that many still remember – the plastic world has not completely won. Artists and filmmakers can still create something beautiful and personal. And also, not everyone needs 3D soulless trinkets.
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