Wolfwalkers – the mystical and transformative tale is a real joy to behold.
There will be ample and endless comparisons to Pixar’s Brave and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. It’s hard to escape the thought; Disney and Pixar, the pop culture animation zeitgeist of our generation, have a long-established dynasty over the medium. But if Cartoon Saloon (responsible for such critically acclaimed hits as The Breadwinner and Song of the Sea) have anything to say about it, then that charm and unbridled joy is not just restricted to the ‘House of Mouse’.
Wolfwalkers is a story with plenty of heart and inspiring soul – a story of friendships, fathers and daughters, female empowerment, authoritarian rule, and an impending ecological disaster set in 17th Century Kilkenny, Ireland. It rifts off the classic animated tropes we are accustomed to, but the reward is so much satisfying and fulfilling. Some would even argue, it goes a step further than its predecessors.
Director Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart take advantage of its historical setting; the English/Irish divide is not lost on its viewers where the English are the invading force thanks to the vocal villainy of Simon McBurney’s Lord Protector. The Cromwellian religious allegory is also present, often reciting “work is prayer” as a justification in fitting in with societal roles and gender conformity. Even Sean Bean’s inclusion feels more like a playful ‘nod and wink’ to Ned Stark in Game of Thrones with frequent references to the wall. But at its heart, is a notable environmental commentary on deforestation, knowing how much the natural world (or in this specific case wolves) rely upon its eco-system and habitat. It might be 17th Century Ireland, but the parallels still echo today.
It brilliantly feeds into its lead character. Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) – an adventurous young girl with a pet sidekick Merlin (classic trope) rebelliously wants to escape her restrictive confines to join her father on his assigned the task to rid the land of wolves who threaten Kilkenny’s societal empire. Disobeying her father’s instructions, she ventures into to the forest where she befriends a young feral girl Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a wolfwalker with the magical power of transformation. In the day, she is a girl, by night, she becomes the hunted creature the town is looking to destroy, endangering her pack on the verge of extinction.
Written by Jericca Cleland and Will Collins, the multi-layered film naturally plays to its strength, ditching anything remotely saccharine, formulaic, or forced for something genuine, honest, and sincere. Through Robyn and Mebh’s friendship, it’s a display of childhood innocence where being opposites from the world they came from, doesn’t stop them from yearning the same desires of freedom. It’s poetic in how Wolfwalkers celebrates empowerment – both characters, so fiercely independent (with plenty of comical charm to boot) display their own unique talents of bravery and mutual understanding, even when the circumstances are against them. With a kind-hearted soul, this is a film about breaking out of the realms of conformity with a voice that refuses to be silent.
The empowerment extends to other characters, finding enough space to craft out Sean Bean’s Bill, a loving father who wants to protect his daughter from the ills of the world. Throughout, he believes he’s doing the right thing – a promise he made to Robyn’s mother. But that resolve is always under question (including his masculinity) when the Lord Protector reminds him of his duty and responsibilities. And like the film’s art of transformation, it becomes an antagonistic source of conflict for Robyn and Mebh’s friendship.
The animation is gorgeous; Moore, Stewart and the talented array of animators push the boundaries of the medium that experiments as well as captivates. You’ll notice it whenever the film goes into ‘wolf mode’, where the richness and detail captured of Kilkenny township, becomes a simplified, two-toned abstract of colour. It’s felt visually when the stakes are raised – a colour drain where the vibrancy and vividness of its animated canvas transform into a dark, Cromwellian nightmare of greys, reds and blacks. Even the aspect ratio changes – the empowering freedom that Robyn adored, thematically transforms into a societal cage, trapped by the gendered role of scullery work. And it’s just little details like that where you grow fondly appreciative of the thought and care in depicting those changes, changes that would be lost if it did a ‘Disney’ by remaking its golden classics into live-action spectacles. There’s something about animation that captures the magic of its art form that is unparalleled, and Wolfwalkers – with its hand-drawn like quality – is a brilliant reminder of that love.
That love and magic extend to its brilliant voice casting. In Kneafsey and Whittaker, you have pure and unadulterated adventurism, youth, and happiness that finds an ardent balance between humanity and empathy. They are the heartbeat of this film, beautifully realised in a montage scene aided by AURORA’s ‘Running with the Wolves’. The switched POV, the sweeping presentation of mysticism while celebrating the heart of being a wolf, is one of those exhilarating movie moments that brings a smile to your face.
Disney and Pixar will undoubtedly continue to dominate the animation landscape and viewer familiarity. But Cartoon Saloon (like Ghibli, Aardman and LAIKA) prove they are a force to be reckoned with in serving up fantastic visual palettes and heartfelt stories. Wolfwalkers is, without doubt, the best animated feature film of the year. Full of spirit, guile, and wonder, it playfully re-invents the formula and renders that beauty into an endearing, epic and wonderfully enchanting spectacle.
WOLFWALKERS screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2020. Out in UK cinemas 26th October 2020. On Apple TV+ on 11th December 2020.