Sometimes, good things come to those who wait. Nearly four years ago at this very site, I wrote a lengthy essay arguing that the next great film or TV series was waiting for any studio to adapt, in the form of the Redwall series by the late author Brian Jacques. The series, which posits an adventurous landscape full of woodland creatures fighting for power and freedom in the forests of the United Kingdom, is full of memorable characters, locations, and food. (Lots and lots of food.) Though there had been a Canadian animated series adapting the first book in 1999, it’s not remotely as captivating as the books were, and there was always room for another retelling.
We are finally close to that reality, thanks to the announcement this week that Netflix has acquired the film rights to the entire Redwall series, and the first book will be turned into a film from Patrick McHale, creator of the Cartoon Network miniseries Over the Garden Wall. Though there’s little doubt that McHale’s got a cast in mind, there’s no reason why we can’t all indulge in a bit of fantasy casting right now, at least for the first adaptation.
Peter Capaldi – Cluny the Scourge
One of the key players in the first Redwall is the terrifying, giant bilge rat Cluny the Scourge, who’s as scary as his reputation implies. It’s he and his group who attempt to take the peaceful Redwall Abbey by force, setting the stage for the major conflict in Redwall. And though there are many talented British performers – because the entire Redwall series is heavily steeped in British lore and culture, there will be no American casting suggestions here – who could step into the fierce role of Cluny, the correct choice is Peter Capaldi. You may know him as one of the Doctors from Doctor Who, but Capaldi’s most memorable role is of the frightening and hilariously acidic Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It and In the Loop. Though Redwall will almost certainly be free from profanity, that wouldn’t stop Capaldi from creating an aurally disturbing villain with his rich Welsh brogue. He knows how to create characters you don’t want to cross.
John Boyega – Martin the Warrior
Martin the Warrior is arguably the most important character in the entirety of the Redwall mythology. Martin serves as a lead in a few of the 22 novels Jacques wrote, and is elsewhere a ghostly symbol of the goodness and heroism embodied by the denizens of Redwall Abbey. Within the first book, he shows up as a helpful apparition, but the announcement of this new film also promised “an event series” focusing on Martin. So who should play this avatar of heroism with a dark backstory? Let me point you no further than Moses from Attack the Block: John Boyega. Yes, I know, John Boyega is in the Star Wars movies, and he’s quite good as Finn. But Moses – that’s the complex and thorny role you should think of here. Boyega is one of the finest actors of his generation, having proven himself more than capable of genre and serious fare. And he’s got the vocal chops to communicate the gravitas and weight Martin should express in every line of dialogue.
Ben Whishaw – Matthias
Matthias is the pure-hearted hero of Redwall – a young mouse who’s struggling to find his place at the abbey, in part because he knows he’s destined for something more than just being a pious mouse. Though there are plenty of young British actors who are roughly the right age to play Matthias – I am that is, to those of you in the know – the key is that being a good actor is not the same as being a good voice actor. Enter Ben Whishaw, whose performance as Paddington Bear is one of the finest pieces of work by any actor in the 21st century. (This is a scientific fact, and I refuse to hear otherwise.) Whishaw has proven that he can effectively sound innocent and naive – even if he’s a bit older than Matthias would likely be. Someone convinced that the world can be made kind and right is someone best suited to voice this hero, and there’s no one better at it than Whishaw.
Richard Ayoade – Basil Stag Hare
Redwall isn’t a grim-faced epic; it still has some characters who recognizably function as comic relief, none more so than Basil Stag Hare. Though Basil cut his teeth in military service – something equivalent to WWII-era British Royal Air Force pilots, at least in terms of his style of speech – he’s a loquacious, goofy hare who’s as ready with a quirky quip as he is with his fighting skills. So the best way to approach casting Basil Stag Hare is by following suit with other animation studios that wisely pick someone who can help flesh out a character’s personality with their own distinctive personality. May I suggest Richard Ayoade, of The IT Crowd, The Boxtrolls, and other titles. That Laika film is proof positive that Ayoade’s memorable voice can effectively fit into the body of Basil Stag Hare, a charmer with an off-kilter personality and a loyal spirit. Get Ayoade behind the mic for this one.
Karen Gillan – Cornflower
If there’s one area where a Redwall adaptation can improve upon the source material, it’s in the relationship between Matthias and Cornflower, a pretty fieldmouse whose presence in the story is largely as a one-dimensional romantic interest for our hero. The basic story is all well and good, but there’s no doubt that a new version of this hero’s journey can expand Cornflower as a character in ways Brian Jacques never did. One element of this can be in the casting – go for Karen Gillan, whose natural Scottish brogue would be a really effective way to begin building more of a personality. Her breakout role on Doctor Who more than a decade ago allowed Gillan to upend the notion of modern heroines; another quirky take on a classic damsel-in-distress role would suit her voice perfectly.
Patrick Stewart – Abbot Mortimer
Many of the books in the Redwall series feature an elder statesman or stateswoman as the Abbot or Abbess of Redwall, a benevolent and wise leader at the tail end of their lives. The pattern started with Abbot Mortimer, a wizened character who sees in Matthias great things, even though the young hero may not achieve them all before Mortimer’s life winds down. Though there are plenty of excellent older actors from whom to choose, none are better suited to Mortimer than Patrick Stewart, a legend in his own right whose booming, stentorian voice could be used to communicate the weariness and wisdom of old age as Mortimer realizes how dangerous and threatening Cluny is, and how ill-equipped his peaceable ways may be to combat the rat. In the right hands, the role has more complexity than may seem evident at first, and Stewart’s more than up to the task.
Daniel Kaluuya – Brother Alf
A key supporting figure in Redwall, Brother Alf is – in his own way like Matthias – waiting for the next step in his life to arrive. He’s a devoted member of the abbey and respectful of the Abbot, but Alf is also a character who has big things coming his way. Alf manages to feel like a future peaceful leader throughout Redwall without actually attempting to become that next leader, calm but assured, firm but kind. It’s best to think of someone who can communicate this kind of multi-dimensionality with their voice as much as with the dialogue they’re given, and that’s where Daniel Kaluuya comes in. Over the last few years, Kaluuya has (in films like Get Out, Widows, and now Judas and the Black Messiah) proven his exceptional range as an actor. Alf is the kind of role that would fit him like a glove.
Rosamund Pike – Sela
Midway through Redwall, Cluny the Scourge and his band of miscreants cross paths with a so-called healer fox, Sela, and her son, Chickenhound. We’ll get to Chickenhound in a minute, but Sela is a key figure within the story, meant to be sly as a fox (naturally) but plenty two-faced. To bring the conflicted character to life, you need to have an actress who has experience in crafting conflict and duplicity in her past work. So consider Rosamund Pike, whose most notable and remarkable piece of acting was in David Fincher’s Gone Girl, and whose cheerful exterior there belied an icy inner being with more than a few tricks up her sleeve. (And though her American accent was top-notch, Pike being British more than qualifies her for Sela.)
Taron Egerton – Chickenhound
For the uninitiated, it’s almost tempting to provide as little detail as possible about Sela’s son, Chickenhound, a young fox whose belief in his own intelligence winds up being something close to his doom. Right now, it’s hard to know for sure if Netflix will do more with the Redwall books than just an adaptation of the first story and this Martin the Warrior series. But seeing as there are 22 books they have the rights to, let’s hope so and imagine that they’ll cast a big name for Chickenhound. (Why cast a big name for a small role, you ask? Well…maybe that big name would need to return for a future installment. Maybe.) At least for this first film, Taron Egerton – who showed unexpected depth as Elton John in Rocketman – would cut the right sniveling figure as Chickenhound, with a hint of darker evil yet to come.
Jude Law – King Bull Sparra
One of the key subplots in Redwall is about retrieving the sword of Martin the Warrior and returning it to its rightful place in Redwall Abbey. Unfortunately for Matthias, the sword is currently being kept by the fierce King Bull Sparra, a sparrow with a murderous streak and a thing for candied chestnuts. (No, really.) As is the case with a number of the animals in the series, the sparrows here have an odd way of talking – it’s as if they speak and squawk almost at the same time – so the actor who plays King Bull Sparra would need a flash or two of strangeness. Though Jude Law looks like a slick heartthrob, inside beats the heart of a character actor. And what you need for King Bull Sparra is an actor who’s willing to get weird without any self-consciousness. He’s done it in live-action with slimy, villainous work in Side Effects and Contagion; Jude Law can do it in animation too.
Nicholas Hoult – Squire Julian Gingivere
For the most part, the world of the Redwall books doesn’t have much room for domesticated animals like dogs or cats. But the first two books in the series – the second being a prequel featuring Martin the Warrior himself – do feature a specific line of cats. In the first book, though, the sole cat isn’t much of a wildcat like his forebears. Squire Julian Gingivere seems terrifying at first – what cat wouldn’t be terrifying to a mouse? – but he’s a friend to Matthias throughout his adventures. Cutting a foppish air of culture leads one to think of recent films like The Favourite and shows like The Great, and suddenly, Nicholas Hoult pops into view. Hoult’s another enormously talented young actor, and his flourish of personality would line up with Squire Julian so well that it would only be a shame the character isn’t the lead.
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Author: Josh Spiegel
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February 11, 2021