Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart.
Starring Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Maria Doyle Kennedy, and Simon McBurney.
A young apprentice hunter and her father journey to Ireland to help wipe out the last wolf pack. But everything changes when she befriends a free-spirited girl from a mysterious tribe rumoured to transform into wolves by night.
It’s hardly been a banner year for animated cinema – quite the opposite, in fact – so it’s an enormous relief to see Irish studio Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner) come to the rescue with their characteristically beautiful, sweetly affecting new project.
In 1600s Kilkenny, Ireland – where the studio itself is based – young English transplant Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) aspires to be a wolf hunter like her father Bill (Sean Bean), who is tasked with wiping out an entire wolfpack at the behest of the evil Lord Protector (Simon McBurney).
But one night, Robyn crosses paths with an Irish girl, Mehb (Eva Whittaker), who turns out to be a Wolfwalker – one of the last remaining members of a tribe capable of transforming into wolves at night. And so, with the English looking to eliminate Mehb, her mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy), and the rest of their clan, Robyn finds herself torn between family, duty, and friendship.
Wolfwalkers continues the studio’s run of visually sumptuous, singular animations, taking a simple base story and shooting it through their unique cultural and aesthetic lens. Typical themes abound – a young lady being urged to simply do what she’s told, humanity exhibiting its most gross tribalistic instincts, the folly of judging by appearance, and most of all, a failure to communicate – yet in its finest moments it is a poignant tale of friendship.
Robyn misses England but feels bound to the duty her father swore, while Mehb pines for her mother, who has ventured off to find a new den for the wolves to live, yet has been absent from home for an increasingly worrying amount of time. Together their shared parental woes and general wist for a bygone time give them an easy bond, and one that audiences should effortlessly latch onto.
And Will Collins’ script certainly isn’t afraid to go there with the darker particulars of its fraught narrative, tinged with melancholy as it so often is, skating on the fringes of dire tragedy on numerous occasions.
Yet there’s still nothing here which any but the youngest viewers should find overly discomforting, as the film’s through-line is focused more on hopeful themes of endurance and overcoming. There’s so much warmth eradiating from every single frame, favouring a quiet wit so often absent in more conventional studio animations; the closest thing to a broad gag here is a sneaky, well-placed Wilhelm scream in the third act.
To the surprise of practically nobody, Wolfwalkers is another visual feast from the studio, continuing to earmark them as one of the few remaining bastions of traditional hand-drawn animation.
But far beyond even a hint of cynical nostalgia-baiting, the film is a triumph of superior art direction, from the angular, expressionistic buildings to the exceptional character designs – especially Mebh’s giant, flowing orange cocoon of hair. Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart also make terrific use of multi-panel frames to show several perspectives at once in creative fashions both artful and playful.
This is all elevated into the stratosphere by another stirring musical score from Bruno Coulais and Kíla, who previously collaborated to score Cartoon Saloon’s first two films. Their distinctly ethereal, string-driven style has more or less been the studio’s aural signature since it began releasing movies, and again it contributes enormously to the overall sense of charm. This isn’t to ignore the show-stopping use of Aurora’s “Running with the Wolves” during one of the film’s most pivotal scenes.
But the heart of the movie is ultimately decided upon by the vocal cast, who true to form have been cannily selected and put to shrewd use. Honor Kneafsey and Eva Whittaker are fantastically sympathetic and evocative as Robyn and Mebh, while Sean Bean brings his usual down-to-Earth charm to the fore, yet also the fiery intensity required for Bill’s paternal determination. Simon McBurney is also perfectly cast as the smug, zealous “land-taming” Lord Protector, making the most of a character who doesn’t offer quite as much to chew on as the aforementioned.
Despite its easily digestible central message about prejudice, this is still the sort of movie that very few studios are making today, and as such it absolutely needs to be supported. That it also happens to be perhaps Cartoon Saloon’s strongest effort so far – and therefore an immediate Best Animated Feature Oscar frontrunner – is just the icing on the cake.
A deliriously charming, unrelentingly gorgeous tale of friendship between two young girls – which, honestly, couldn’t we all use a little more of in our lives?
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.