Dir. Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart; Honor Kneafsay, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean
[4 out of 4 stars]
Irish myth and folklore remain a largely untapped resource for fantasy storytelling on the big screen. It seems that when most Western creators search for mythic source material they turn in droves to Greco-Roman or Norse texts, resulting in a saturation of Gods of thunder and lightning filling out contemporary pop culture. Whatever the cultural hang-up is, the innovative storytellers working out of Ireland-based Cartoon Saloon are doing their best to introduce the broader tapestry of traditional Celtic legends into the conversation. Though the animation company has been around since 1999, it is only in the last ten years or so that they have gained prominence. We can trace this burgeoning success to the breakthrough of two of their Ireland-centric animated movies, first The Secret of the Kells (2009), followed by Song of the Sea (2014), both of which were critical successes, and have found considerable shelf-lives on Netflix. For all of that though, it is their newest feature, Wolfwalkers (2020), that fully announces Cartoon Saloon as an animation studio to pay close attention to.
Released earlier this year on Apple TV+, Wolfwalkers recounts the 17th Century tale of young English Robyn Goodfellow (Honor Kneafsay) and her father Bill (Sean Bean) who have traveled to Ireland to serve the authoritarian English Lord-Protector (Simon McBurney) as he works to “tame” Ireland. Bill, a hunter by trade, is tasked with eradicating the local wolf population so that the forest can be leveled in pursuit of expanding “civilization.” Robyn hates waiting within the city walls while her father hunts, yearning to help him in the woods. It is that restlessness that leads her to sneak out with her trusty hawk Merlin and follow Bill. While following him, Robyn comes face-to-face with Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whittaker), a fabled wolfwalker; a human whose spirit emerges from their body as a wolf while they sleep. Mebh and Robyn strike up an unlikely friendship that challenges Robyn’s understanding of the wolves in the woods, and who is in the right when it comes to the settling of the Irish wilds. Her change of heart brings her into direct conflict with the Lord-Protector and her father, and when Robyn herself becomes a wolfwalker she must decide what lengths she is willing to go to in the name of doing what is just.
Wolfwalkers works on two distinct narrative levels, a testament to the layered storytelling provided by screenwriter Will Collins. The first of these is how Robyn develops as a protagonist during her adventuring. Robyn defies the classical tropes of a female lead in a fantasy tale. Bill expects her to stay at home to tidy the house, or work in the scullery with the other women, but she is uninterested in such a restrictively traditional lifestyle. She is drawn to the traditionally masculine pursuit of hunting, and more broadly, exploring the untamed side of her world. Yet, she never falls into the regrettable ‘Spunky Princess’ trope, where a female character is written as sassy and defiant but has no other meaningful traits that distinguish her from traditional princesses—think of, and I hate to say this but it is true, Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright) in The Princess Bride (1987)—Robyn undergoes a nuanced arc that sees her reckon with her familial, cultural, and nationalized relationships. This is due in large part to her friendship with Mebh, who is a remarkable character creation all her own. Together, they start out by representing two extremes in terms of Robyn being on the side of England’s goals of taming the world, and Mebh looking to protect her pack of non-wolfwalker wolves as the embodiment of Ireland’s wild roots. However, they are so much more than allegorical stand-ins: they support each other the sisters do, and they fight the same way. We are treated to the blossoming of a friendship alongside the more dire reality of the two needing to come together to save the forest and the wolves from the Lord-Protector’s destruction. Altogether it is a beautifully-rendered story of friendship that elevates the requisite conflict of good versus evil at the core of any respectable fantasy tale.
The second narrative level, which I have gestured at already, is the way that Wolkfwalkers addresses the cost of England’s colonial mission in Ireland. The Lord-Protector is portrayed as an authoritarian monster, a man who does not bat an eyelash at throwing his detractors into stockades, and takes pleasure in discussing how he intends to “burn the forest to the ground.” In fact, we first meet him as he rides out of the town with an army to quell a “resistance” in the south. By positioning him as the personification of the forces of evil, Wolfwalkers makes clear that the darkness in their story is the way that English forces arrived in Ireland and used fear to attempt and “tame” them, a word the Lord-Protector uses again and again. Therefore, Mebh and the wolves represent an Ireland that is allowed to flourish and be free, able to bask in the beauty of its natural state without the despotic rule of the British Empire. It is a heavy concept for a film otherwise aimed at a young audience, but it is woven so tenderly into the greater narrative that it functions as a perfect backdrop for the story. Younger viewers can appreciate the Lord-Protector as an intimidating villain whether or not they comprehend that his vicious actions are motivated by the broader colonial project, but that depth is easily accessible by older viewers who can appreciate such a well-crafted allegory. In this way, I was reminded of Paddington 2 (2018), a “children’s movie” that took on Brexit with similar aplomb while never losing sight of the elegant simplicity of a talking bear. Wolfwalkers achieves an intellectual depth within a thrilling story that makes it stimulating and engaging for an impressive range of viewers.
Allowing all of this passionate storytelling to take place is truly breathtaking animation. Cartoon Saloon is a rare breed of modern animation in that their animators do everything by hand. Most major studios have transitioned to computer-animation: think of Pixar, Illumination, and now even the newest release from otherwise hand-drawn stalwart Studio Ghibli. Wolkfwalkers looks like a watercolor painting come to life. Their approach to the forest is particularly stunning. The trees bleed together into a tapestry of golden leaves and swirling trunks that tower above our characters while also serving as their protectors from the town. The lines and colors of the forest are varied and free, a stark contrast to the severe angles and dull tones of the town. In this way, the appearance of the settings and the characters within them mirror the themes and emotions that the narrative puts forth about each one. This is encapsulated wonderfully in how the animators turn Robyn and Mebh’s hair into a motif that develops as their characters do. At the start, Robyn always has her hair in tightly wound and tidy braids, while Mebh’s fiery red mane flows free and is regularly peppered by leaves and twigs. Over time though, as Robyn pushes further from the strictures of the town, she allows her hair to loosen. Similarly, as Mebh realizes that there is good in Robyn, she allows her new friend to comb her hair and put a flower in it. It is a small touch, but one emblematic of the care and precision with which the animators and directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart approach their story. They have built an atmospheric and expressionistic world that is easy to fall in love with.
For me, Wolkfwalkers represents the sort of animated movie we should hope for. It is a beautifully and meticulously rendered film that offers a story of real depth that expects and therefore rewards engagement from its audience. Instead of simply throwing headache-inducing neon colors onscreen to try and attract as much topical attention as possible, Wolfwalkers understands that the marker of true artistry is having faith in your story and your animators. I hope that Wolfwalkers brings Cartoon Saloon to new heights of commercial and critical success so that we may keep being treated to their wondrous work for years to come.