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‘Little Wolf: The Night Trail’: A Coming-of-Age Battle Against the Undead

Director Jesse Cowan takes a dark journey into Native American mythology with his tale of a young boy, his wolf totem, and their fight with monsters of the forest.

Jesse Cowan’s award-winning 2D animated short, Little Wolf: The Night Trail, tells the coming-of-age story of a young boy and his wolf totem as they navigate the perils of a mysterious forest, filled with monsters from Native American lore. Cowan, an independent animator, teacher, and member of the Chickasaw Nation, loves all things animated, and his boredom with the status quo of animation in America drove him to create the film.

Cowan turned to both the rich history of Native American mythology and more contemporary sources as inspiration for his story, a dark and violent journey through a dangerous forest. “I knew going in, I wanted to animate a boy in the woods hunting monsters,” he shares. “It's the sort of fare that captures the big kid in me. Learning about Monomyth and Joseph Campbell played a big part in that, because that speaks to the idea of a timeless struggle that would be understood by both our ancestors and our great-grandchildren.”

“There are countless Native American myths involving the undead, ranging from classic ghosts, skeletons, and hungry vampire corpses to more exotic creatures like rolling heads and re-animated disembodied arms,” he continues. “One common pattern found in tons of these stories is that the dead, or even the living, are possessed by a malevolent spirit, turning their hearts to ice. The only way to kill them for sure in this case is to burn the heart until it melts, as is the case in some wendigo tales. If the creatures aren't possessed by some foul spirit, they are often shapeshifting witches like Spear-Finger, or giant man-eating ogres like Basket Woman or the Lofa. But man, there are tons of monsters and boogeymen in native folklore, which is great for making your audience's skin crawl!”

In the film, Little Wolf’s world is a dangerous place; the cannibalistic wendigo found rampaging through the woods are reminiscent of a hoard of zombies, making Cowan’s short a fan favorite during its current horror film festival run that has included Best Animated Short wins at the Atlanta Horror Film Festival, Freakshow Film Festival, and New Wave Film Festival.

Take a few minutes to enjoy Little Wolf: The Night Trail:

“I wanted to create something that I haven't really seen done with animation,” the director reveals. “I've seen swords, armor, and dragons. I've seen cowboys in space. I've seen samurai high schoolers. But when's the last time you’ve seen a story about a Native American in his actual environment? Without European settlers or cowboys? The closest things I can think of was Disney's Brother Bear, or the graphic novelization of Joseph Bruchac's ‘Dawn Land.’ This all piqued my curiosity, because it gave me an opportunity to learn about a part of my heritage that I knew relatively little about and combine it with my own imagination to create something new and fun.”

Determined to treat his audience like grown-ups, Cowan points to 70s-80s animated features as another source of inspiration. “I was influenced by stuff like Watership Down, The Secret of Nimh, The Black Cauldron, and Wizards,” he explains. “I watched these as a young person, and never felt ‘talked down to.’ As I got older, so much animation felt like it was playing it safe, trying to patronize the audience, which always left a bad taste in my mouth. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to be straight with my audience and give them the respect they deserve.”

Cowan animated the first minute of the film, which proved enough to get a number of artists to join the production. According to the director, “I was prepared to animate the entire thing myself if I had to, but luckily that first minute of animation was solid enough for me to recruit a team of really talented artists, animators and friends. They believed in the project, and really helped elevate it to something amazing. I'm proud of the work we accomplished. I think we've made something awesome."

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.