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Now it’s time to turn our attention to another genre of the filmographic arts, a genre that rarely gets the respect it deserves:
No, I’m not talking about “kids’ movies” here. Although to be sure, some of the animated Irish mythology features on this list fall into that bucket.
The reality is cartoons are not just for kids.
Case in point: the three animated features that comprise the Kilkenny, Ireland-based animation studio Cartoon Saloon’s Irish Folklore Trilogy are cinematic masterpieces in their own right, and are rife with mature themes and situations.
I pity the parent who sticks their toddler in front of Wolfwalkers assuming it’s going to be a Cocomelon-esque gaga fest. It is anything but.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get on with the show, shall we?
The 7 Best Animated Feature Films Based on Irish Mythology and Folklore
The following movies are ranked in order from worst to best based on their IMDb ratings (re: the green numbers). Ties were broken by referring to Tomatometer scores on Rotten Tomatoes.
7) Riverdance: The Animated Adventure (2021) – 5.5
The best part of this movie is its inclusion of the Megaloceros giganteus, or Irish elk—a now-extinct Irish deer that once roamed the Emerald Isle. The worst part of this movie is, arguably, the plot, which follows an Irish boy (Keegan) and a Spanish girl (Moya) as they cross over into the magical realm of the Megaloceros giganteus. Yes, Irish mythology abounds with “otherworlds.” But none of them, to the best of my knowledge, feature Riverdancing Irish elk who also play hurling to stay in shape. Not even the vocal performances of Pierce Brosnan, Brendan Gleeson, and Aisling Bea could save this one. As film critic Deirdre Molumby laments, “This movie is exhaustingly bad,” (source: entertainment.ie).
Watch Riverdance: The Animated Adventure here:
6) Luck (2022) – 6.4
Look, in retrospect, I feel like I was a bit harsh on Riverdance. Truth be told, I watched it with my kid and found it…yes, baffling, because it’s an Irish fantasy movie based on a dance made famous by the one and only Michael Flatley…but it’s also entertaining. And it certainly presents a fresh take on Irish folklore, one that eschews familiar tropes—i.e., leprechauns and gold coins. Luck, by comparison, is 100% a leprechauns and gold coins movie. It follows Sam Greenfield, who is the unluckiest person in the world; that is until a black cat gifts her a lucky penny. She ends up crossing over into the Land of Luck (naturally) where she meets a whole bunch of leprechauns and a Jane Fonda-voiced dragon. These magical beings create the world’s good luck using a big ole luck machine that’s powered by magic luck stones…or something. Anyway, Luck makes Riverdance look like The Godfather. To quote film critic Christy Lemire: “The character design is rubbery and off-putting, the dialogue is inane, the antics are forced, and the mythology is mind-bogglingly convoluted,” (source: RogerEbert.com).
Watch Luck here:
5) Scooby-Doo! Abracadabra-Doo (2010) – 6.9
Finally, a good movie! At least according to the Scooby-Doo community. And yes, that’s a legit community of folks who watch and review all of the new Scooby-Doo movies that come out. Scooby-Doo! Abracadabra-Doo is a crowd favorite, heralded for its “moody atmosphere” and “darker, more realistic style of animation,” (source: Mana Pop). The story is set at the Whirlen Merlin Magic Academy, which in turn is housed in an old Irish castle that famed magician Seamus O’Flannery brought to North America two centuries earlier. O’Flannery was said to have possessed a staff that controlled a griffin (also: gryphon), a mythical beast that was supposed to protect the castle. Flash forward to the modern day, however, and the griffin is attacking students. Gasp! Only Scoob and the gang can save the school, but first they’ll need to overcome some seriously spooky obstacles, including a shrieking banshee. However, as with any good Scooby-Doo mystery, not all is what it seems.
Watch Scooby-Doo! Abracadabra-Doo here:
4) Faeries (1981) – 7.4
This animated television special first aired back in 1981 on CBS. It has since been relegated to cult status, and as far as I can tell, the only way to watch it is to snag a highly coveted VHS copy. Based on a 1978 book of the same name (Faeries), the movie follows a young hunter named Oisin who meets a faerie princess named Niamh. Niamh takes Oisin to meet her father, the Faerie King, whose evil shadow has come to life and threatens to destroy Faerie Land. If this whole thing sounds a bit familiar, it’s because it is familiar: the plot is clearly a loose interpretation of the tale of Oisín and Niamh Cinn-Óir (of the golden hair), a Fenian Cycle story that sees Oisín, son of Fionn mac Cumhaill, following Niamh, daughter of the sea-god Manannán mac Lir, to Tír Na nÓg, the land of eternal youth. TV Guide describes this Emmy-nominated animated affair from the early ‘80s as follows: “Based on the beautifully illustrated best-seller by Brian Froud and Alan Lee, this animated tale takes a look at the fantastical, delicate lives of the mythical wee folk.”
Watch Faeries here:
3) The Secret of Kells (2009) – 7.6
You never forget your first Cartoon Saloon movie. If you’ve yet to take the plunge, there’s no place to start like the beginning. Directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey kicked off the Irish animation studio’s Irish Folklore Trilogy with this tale of a young boy, Brendan, who, much to his uncle’s chagrin, is much more concerned with the creation of the 9th-century illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kells, than an impending Viking invasion. This Academy Award-nominated masterpiece lost the Best Animated Feature contest to Pixar’s Up, which, I gotta say, was some bullsh*t. Here’s how film critic Philip French summarized The Secret of Kells: “Magical, funny, wholly lacking in po-faced piety, the movie incorporates elements of Irish mythology and is drawn in a flat, stylised fashion that derives from the art of the time. It’s about the creation of that which endures and asserts both man’s faith in the spirit and his celebration of the beauty of this world,” (source: The Guardian).
Watch The Secret of Kells here:
2) Song of the Sea (2014) – 8.0
No, not even Cartoon Saloon was immune to selkie fever. As you may have observed in my list of the top live-action Irish mythology movies, filmmakers can’t seem to get enough of these shapeshifting seal-humans. The Secret of Roan Inish (1994); The Seventh Stream (2001); A Shine of Rainbows (2009); Ondine (2009). No, there was no shortage of Irish selkie sagas when Cartoon Saloon released Song of the Sea in 2014. But that doesn’t mean the animated feature wasn’t a worthwhile addition to the genre. Like The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea was nominated for the best animated feature Oscar. It lost to Disney’s Big Hero Six. (Robbed. Again.) The movie follows a young boy, Ben, who discovers that Saoirse, his mute sister, is actually a selkie. The Irish goddess Macha, an incarnation of the Morrígan, serves as the film’s primary antagonist. “‘Song of the Sea’ is a wonder to behold,” according to film critic Kenneth Turan, who continues: “This visually stunning animation masterwork, steeped in Irish myth, folklore and legend, so adroitly mixes the magical and the everyday that to watch it is to be wholly immersed in an enchanted world,” (source: Los Angeles Times).
Watch Song of the Sea here:
1) Wolfwalkers (2020) – 8.0
What can I say about Wolfwalkers that I haven’t already said? It’s a beautiful film; a film that is ostensibly about Irish werewolves lurking in the woods outside of Kilkenny. But it’s about much, much more than that, too. Set in 1650 during Oliver Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland, Wolfwalkers follows Robyn Goodfellowe, the daughter of a hunter, as she befriends the mysterious Mebh, who lives in the forest. Themes of anti-authoritarianism, feminism, forbidden friendships, and the threat of ecological collapse permeate this work of historical/folklorical fiction. As critic Glen Weldon explains: “The film succeeds by hanging all those disparate tones and motifs along a clean and direct narrative, which is to say: You and your kids will see every turn in the plot coming. But in an era when Disney/Pixar tend to overload their animated films with expositional dumps of lore that must first be internalized before you can follow the story, Wolfwalkers does its world-building through emotional voice-work, through lush, hand-drawn animation, and through visual style for days,” (source: NPR). Like its predecessors in the Irish Folklore Trilogy, Wolfwalkers was nominated for the best animated feature Oscar. (It lost to Pixar’s Soul.)
Watch Wolfwalkers here:
Want to learn about the darker side of Irish mythology? Check out…
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In the Ireland of myth and legend, “spooky season” is every season. Spirits roam the countryside, hovering above the bogs. Werewolves lope through forests under full moons. Dragons lurk beneath the waves. Granted, there’s no denying that Samhain (Halloween’s Celtic predecessor) tends to bring out some of the island’s biggest, baddest monsters. Prepare yourself for (educational) encounters with Irish cryptids, demons, ghouls, goblins, and other supernatural beings. Learn more…
“A thrilling romp through pubs, mythology, and alleyways. NEON DRUID is such a fun, pulpy anthology of stories that embody Celtic fantasy and myth,” (Pyles of Books). Cross over into a world where the mischievous gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes of Celtic mythology live among us, intermingling with unsuspecting mortals and stirring up mayhem in cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, from Limerick and Edinburgh to Montreal and Boston. Learn more…
More the listenin’ type?
I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.