On the morning of February 10th, Netflix casually tweeted an announcement that caused an entire generation’s inner child to levitate out of bed and cry “Eulalia!” with one voice: the streaming platform had acquired the rights to the entirety of Brian Jacques’ beloved Redwall series. Plans were announced for a feature film and an “event series” to start, with no information yet on casting, timeline, or other details.
Jacques’ medieval fantasy adventure series, a proto-cottagecore masterpiece with a colorful cast of anthropomorphic wildlife, was written for the age range we now refer to as middle grade and spanned 22 books, from the 1986 publication of Redwall to the publication of The Rogue Crew in 2011, several months after the author’s death. The books have sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, and given that the series’ fans are largely well into adulthood by now, the nostalgia is ripe for the picking.
But, of course, we have some questions.
Which books will they adapt?
What we know so far is that Netflix’s feature film will focus on Matthias and follow the plot of Redwall, the first book in the series by publication order, and the event series will tell the story of Martin the Warrior, who co-founded the Abbey alongside the wise and stalwart Abbess Germaine. Presumably the series will draw from Martin the Warrior and Mossflower, both of which chronicle Martin’s life and adventures, and may even dip into The Legend of Luke, which follows Martin’s exploration of his father’s life and legacy.
But what of future movies or series? The first three books form an unofficial trilogy, starting with Redwall, which covers Matthias’s growth from orphaned novice monk to Warrior of Redwall, guided by the spirit of Martin the Warrior, and his defeat of the rat warlord Cluny the Scourge. Next is Mossflower, which jumps back several generations to tell the story of Martin’s quest to free the animals of Mossflower Wood from the tyrant wildcat Tsarmina Greeneyes. We can safely assume that both of these books will be covered in the movie and event series. But the logical next step would be an adaptation (likely a feature rather than a series) of Mattimeo, the third novel, which concerns the kidnapping of some of Redwall’s children (“Dibbuns,” in the parlance of the Abbey), including the title character, Matthias’ son.
Beyond that, though, Netflix has plenty of potential material to work with, having acquired the rights to all 22 novels. Within the series, there are plenty of shorter story arcs and duologies to choose from, and the novels take place over a wide-ranging timeline that spans generations, offering a lot of narrative flexibility. I suspect Mariel of Redwall is a natural choice for another feature film–it’s full of pirates, amnesia, vengeance, and one deeply scary scorpion, plus it’s the first book in the series with a female protagonist (and a fearless one at that). A spin-off series chronicling the generations of Badger Lords of Salamandastron and the hares of the Long Patrol, whose stories comprise the second most prominent arc in the novels, would be an easy and sensible choice.
When it comes to providing some sort of throughline between the features and series, we return once again to Martin, who is the closest thing to a main character in the books. Martin’s spirit appears to many characters throughout the series, often offering guidance or wisdom or assistance in battle, which could provide a nice framing device across the various pieces of Netflix’s Redwall universe.
Who is this for?
As with so many contemporary adaptations of 80s and 90s properties, the audience question is key. Adaptations of decades-old children’s media rely on nostalgia to draw in viewers, of course, but they have to nail the balance between appealing to the now-adult fans of the original property and the children who’ll be the next generation of that audience.
Like the best children’s stories, Redwall addresses big, difficult concepts in a way that’s digestible for young readers. Marauding armies, brigands, warlords, and pirates are rampant, and beloved characters die, but bravery, teamwork, courage, and compassion always carry the day. Arguably the most common criticism of the books is that their moral universe is a bit too black and white–all stoats are evil, for instance, and all squirrels are good–and this is where I see the most room for growth in the adaptations. We shouldn’t be afraid to introduce ethical nuance to kids, and I suspect, given the announcement of Patrick McHale as the writer for the Redwall feature film, that that won’t be an issue here.
McHale is best known for the 2014 animated miniseries Over the Garden Wall, which gained instant cult status upon its release and which has legions of fans who rewatch it every October. It’s a children’s series, yes, but it balances whimsy and menace in a remarkably effective way, and without spoiling anything, it explores a universe populated by fundamentally good people who sometimes do bad things for good reasons. (If you haven’t watched it, it’s streaming on Hulu, and it’s well worth a couple hours of your time.)
In terms of tone, I think we can trust McHale to nail it–Cluny the Scourge and his hordes should be scary, of course, but it takes some judgment to walk the middle path between soul-crushingly scary (see: the 1978 animated adaptation of Watership Down) and carefully sanitized (see: the sanded-down, toothless 2007 film adaptation of The Golden Compass).
McHale is, to put it succinctly, a writer who understands the importance of the symbiosis between vibes and story. I’m frankly gobsmacked at how well-suited he is for this project, and I hope the writers on the Martin series and any future projects in this universe are just as perfect a fit.
What’s the animation style?
What I’ll say first and foremost here is that if Netflix makes me watch some 3D CGI horrorshow or motion-capture monstrosity, I will simply walk into the sea, never to return. I don’t think this is an actual danger, given the concept art attached to Netflix’s announcement tweet (a beautiful illustration by Pierre Breton showing a mouse, presumably Matthias, in Redwall Abbey’s Great Hall), but I just needed to state it for the record.
There’s a pastoral timelessness to the Redwall books that only a more traditional 2D animation style can really do justice to. We’re talking lush matte painting backgrounds, Miyazaki-level attention to detail, characters with expressive faces that don’t all look the same. Over the Garden Wall was animated in a nostalgic, dreamlike style that deliberately echoed early Disney animation, folk art, and a variety of other influences ranging from 1800s fairy tale illustrations to vintage Halloween postcards and other ephemeral bits of Americana. With a bit of tweaking (more The Wind in the Willows and Beatrix Potter, less Steamboat Willie), I think they’ll be right on the mark with that same approach.
One unlikely alternative I’ll float here would be the daring choice to go with an approach more in line with The Secret of Kells, the 2009 Cartoon Saloon movie animated in an exaggerated, playful style inspired by insular art and medieval illuminated manuscripts. I don’t think this will happen–it’s a little too esoteric–but wouldn’t it be beautiful?
How big are these animals, exactly?
Though the existence of humans was loosely implied in the first book, Jacques backed off that angle for subsequent books in the series. But the lingering question among fans has often been: are these animals the same size as their real-life counterparts? What scale are we operating on where a mouse and a badger can comfortably coexist in the same physical building? Jacques hand-waved this away, saying “the creatures in my stories are as big or small as your imagination wants them to be,” which is reasonable enough for someone working in prose, but animators don’t quite have that luxury.
My guess is that the animators will simply shrink the scale for simplicity and sanity’s sake, and to avoid any questions akin to the many, many, many inquiries the internet had about 2019’s Cats (for what it’s worth, all of those questions are answered satisfactorily here).
Most importantly: how do you do justice to the food?
Ask most adult readers who grew up on these books to tell you what they remember best, and I’d bet good money that most of them mention the feast scenes. Jacques had a singular talent for writing mouth-watering descriptions of imagined delicacies–for some examples, have a scroll through the Redwall Feast bot on Twitter or read Molly Priddy’s list of best Redwall feasts at Electric Lit. Personally, I have not once encountered the words “cordial,” “beetroot,” or “damson” in my adult life without flashing back to Redwall Abbey at least a little.
But with a visual adaptation, the food needs to look good, of course, and be immediately appetizing on screen. Think of the way food is animated in Studio Ghibli movies, particularly Spirited Away–if you could, you’d reach through the screen and grab one of Haku’s onigiri for yourself, right? The appeal is in both the way the food is depicted and in the characters’ reactions to it. With these Redwall adaptations, I need to see the celery and hazelnuts studded in the wheel of cheese, the spray from the fizzy strawberry cordial, the dollop of meadowcream on the honeysuckle scones, but it’s just as important to see a group of moles enthusiastically tucking into a Deeper ‘n’ Ever Turnip ‘n’ Tater ‘n’ Beetroot Pie.
What questions do you have about Netflix’s Redwall adaptations, and which moments are you most excited to see on screen?
Emily Hughes talks about books, both professionally for Tor Books and for fun everywhere else. You can find her elsewhere in Electric Literature and Brooklyn Magazine. Formerly the editor of Unbound Worlds, she now writes a newsletter about scary books and tweets bad puns @emilyhughes.