The pond-crossing animation studio Cartoon Saloon is on one heck of a roll in the indie circuits. Having made three films in a decade that have pleased audiences and garnered Oscar attention, they have managed to raise their own game. So of course, the expectations were reasonably high for their fourth opus. Without fear of any contradiction, I can safely say they have been surpassed. Wolfwalkers, Tomm Moore’s third as a feature director, and the conclusion of a supposed trilogy engrossed in deep Irish lore is a feast for all five senses that is difficult to describe in mere words alone. It is a visual treat that demands every ounce of attention, preferably seen on the biggest screen possible. An aural experience punctuated by a precise musical backbeat. And a story rooted deep in a fragment of the past rarely touched upon in film but carrying an echoing mirror to where the world needs to heal. All of this seems so impossible, and yet the result could not be more of a year-end contender if it had gone the traditional route.
On its mild surface, Moore’s story, collaborating with co-director Ross Stewart, Will Collins, and Jericca Cleland, is ancient yet still simple. Young apprentice hunter Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) is eager for a challenge as she and her father Will (Sean Penn) have traveled back to Ireland, volunteering his services to eradicate the last surviving pack of wolves in the area. The human townsfolk of mid-17th century Kilkenny (in the same town the Saloon would later set up shop) see these furry creatures as demonic, a natural evil that must be tamed by man. As they are in a time where they can only presume the presence of dark magic without concrete evidence, the instinct here is to be scared. The town’s Lord Protector (Simon McBurney playing the elder hybrid between Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins) assures his constituents of such every day as they plan a final attack, having caged one of the furry canids in his estate.
One encounter with a wolf causes Robyn’s worldview, her very opinion on hunting to change. A chance meeting with a feral girl named Mebh (Eva Whittaker) who can easily rival the young toddler from The Croods, blows her mind. Mebh happens to be the last in a surviving line of “wolfwalkers”, a form of hybrid who live human lives in the daylight, changing form at night, for however long is necessary to solidify the balance between nature and industry. The two build a friendship on the basis that their souls are forever linked to members of the pack, with Mebh being a trifle contagious. And if their luck wins out, they can perhaps change the culture, and save those closest to them.
That optimistic attitude only aims to further propel Moore’s directive from start to finish. His animation squad have once more honed the unique style and rawness invoked in their predecessors while showing a calm and cautious restraint in not going all out upon approach. The same way Secret of Kells portrayed utter fairytale whimsy with only the most minimal of brushstrokes, or Song of the Sea’s compelling family story expressed with the quiet rumble one expects of a crashing wave, Wolfwalkers is composed so beautifully and yet not too quietly. The linework in both characters and scenery reminds one of a graphic novel from a bygone era, lush and gritty. Its use of color (emphasized by a lot of bright golds, greens, and reds) accentuates Robyn’s curious attitude with a cozy mid-October palette. And its vivid nontraditional effects (all still handled two-dimensionally), give our accidental lupine heroes a deeper belief of psyche, while fulfilling the other three senses. The wonders that POV storytelling, via the ingeniously monikered “wolfvision” can do for tactile stimuli and scent, though not so much taste, giving all three a visual voice, shown as a trippy sort of black light with varying vapor trails.
Just about every frame Moore and his team preside over could be framed like a painting. There’s so much inquisitive detail in play here, not just in the forest where freedom is expressed in gorgeous curves and looser shaped objects. But just as importantly in the confines of the kingdom, or lack thereof. Robyn’s story is not just one of merely discovering new friendships, and embracing the shared experiences of a different species. It’s to break free from the shackles of an abstract prison, disguised as a working puritan encampment, narrow and rigid, with that burning touch of colonialism. The further away Robyn can get from that cage, the better of a chance to grow up. And the more fearful Bill becomes to protect her daughter, and keep a promise made to his late wife. He can only go so far as to lock her inside, and away from Mebh, her mother, and their tribe.
The bonds of which delicately align with that of which fear in a community drives decision to restore order, even at the risk of destroying nature. All these relationships do not appear false or ingenuine at any point. Stewart treats each with care and methodical timing; this is perhaps why the film feels slightly longer than youngest viewers may be patient for. But it is just one way the journey is worthwhile without any time wasted. It’s truthful about childhood fears without taking shortcuts; even soulful about conquering them. It blurs the line between traditional folklore and historical biography, keeping both just a bit more accessible. And it emphasizes the importance of one’s loyalty toward family, found or inherited. What Mebh and Robyn have is a unique sisterhood only two like-minded individuals can possess, in the greatest spiritual tense.
Complete with a rousingly diverse underscore by Bruno Coulais (Coraline) and numerous contributors (Aurora’s specified redo of “Running with the Wolves” is an earworm in the making), Wolfwalkers goes beyond mere descriptive exposition explained here. It must be both seen and heard to be believed and even felt. Think jolts in the skin, shivers down the spine type of felt. No matter what age, audiences will find it difficult not to be swept up under that passionate aire the Saloon’s past works wore with pride but hold onto this time with a growing realism.
2020 has been the least dense year for animation in recent memory (blame the pandemic), but what has been unleashed on waiting audiences hasn’t differed in highs and lows. Wolfwalkers is easily the highest to this point. It has no business being, at least to this point, the year’s best animated feature. But this colorful, complex, heartwarming adventure Robyn embarks on is just that, confronting all that came before it, without looking to outdo. If nothing else, simply wanting to belong. (A; 4.5/5 Horns Up!)
Wolfwalkers plays in select theaters this weekend, followed by a steaming bow on Apple TV+ December 11; rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, scary images, some thematic elements, and brief language; 102 minutes.