Animated films have received a ton of attention this year (since the production of many live-action films was postponed), with more on the way. Despite many big studio releases, I think it will be very hard to top Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s Wolfwalkers, another visually stunning work heavily inspired by Irish history and folklore. I say “another” because Tomm Moore and the studio Cartoon Saloon have been consistently crafting fantastic films in this vein for years. Secret of the Kells, Song of the Sea, and now Wolfwalkers all pull from similar legends and historical art to create a trilogy of mesmerizing and joyous tales. All of the lessons learned from their previous works are on full display in this new release, as it deftly explores themes of otherness, transformation, and responsibility.
Wolfwalkers is set in Ireland during the Interregnum at the end of the Irish Confederate Wars, a period in English history where the monarch was overthrown and Oliver Cromwell made himself head of state and lord protector of the country. Cromwell then asserted control over Ireland, passing laws that discriminated against Irish Catholics and confiscating their land. This tension is baked into the story. As we are introduced to the main character Robyn and her father Goodfellowe, other children show disdain for Robyn because she’s English. Her father serves Cromwell in his crusade to tame the wild land (it’s not subtle, but it’s for kids, y’know?). Robyn’s desire to follow in her father’s footsteps lead her to meet Mebh, a girl who can turn into a wolf when she falls asleep. Robyn’s relationships with her father and with Mebh soon come into conflict after Cromwell orders all wolves in the forest killed.
In contrast to many of the Pixar-esque, 3-D animated films of this century, Wolfwalkers shows that 2-D animation is stronger than ever. The near death of 2-D animation in popular studios has led to innovation that few 3-D animated features have achieved. Even with several big 3-D movies being released this year, Wolfwalkers sets itself apart with its attention to visual storytelling.
The film pulls heavily from Celtic art and imagery, while also using that imagery to contribute to the film’s story. The difference between settings is shown by the drastic visual contrast, as Robyn’s village is rendered in rigid, straight lines, while the surrounding forest is made up of semicircles and curves. As the villagers cut down the forest, we literally see the fields become drawn more like the town, with angular tree stumps covering the frame. This attention to detail is also present in the designs of the wolves, as the sketches their final animations were based on can be seen in many scenes. All these touches serve to emphasize Wolfwalkers’ themes, as the forest and the wolves feel unfettered and free while the inflexible angular lines of the town feel like a trap for the characters. Symbols of chains and prison bars are used in the village to highlight Robyn’s desires, while they reinforce her father’s worries.
All this artistry serves a well-told, if predictable story. This conflict has been seen in other children’s films (even other ones with wolves in them), but a smart script and a few twists and turns give the film enticing energy. I would rewatch this for the animation alone, but it’s so fun I ended up watching it twice before finishing this review! Wolfwalkers is an excellent addition to Tomm Moore’s unofficial Irish trilogy with stunning animation elevating its story to one of the best told of the year.
Review copy provided by Apple TV+