Runtime: 100 minutes
Directors: Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart
Writer: Will Collins (Story by Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart)
Stars: Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Simon McBurney
By Calum Cooper
Cartoon Saloon ranks alongside Laika as one of the most exciting animation studios emerging in this new century of cinema. Their style is akin to the classic 2D hand-drawn animation of old-school Disney. But, through their own loose linework, their films feel much more singular. If children’s picture books were given motion, the films of Cartoon Saloon is probably what they would look like. With “Wolfwalkers” (2020) gracing this year’s London Film Festival, Cartoon Saloon may have produced their best film yet.
Rounding off their unofficial Irish folklore trilogy, composed also of “The Secret of the Kells” (2009) and “Song of the Sea” (2014), our story is set in 1650s Ireland, during England’s colonisation. Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) and her father Bill (Sean Bean) have migrated from England to Kilkenny. Bill is a hunter who has been hired by Kilkenny’s Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney), to oversee the deforestation of nearby woods. These woods are occupied by a pack of wolves who threaten Cromwell’s hold of the town.
Robyn wishes to hunt like her father, and even has experience from her days in England. But she is instead forced to work at the skullies, much to her disdain, especially as the residents of Kilkenny aren’t taking kindly to the presence of the English. She follows her father one day and comes face to face not just with the wolves, but a girl named Mebh (Eva Whittaker). Mebh is a wolfwalker – someone who projects a wolf form when they sleep. Mebh is waiting for her mother, another wolfwalker, to return so that the wolves can leave. Robyn and Mebh soon strike a friendship, and thus their fates become intertwined with that of Kilkenny’s.
“Hayao Miyazaki once said that the beauty of hand-drawn animation is being able to see the human touch within the craft. “Wolfwalkers” is full of that human touch.”
Paralleling the previous films from Cartoon Saloon, the animation of “Wolfwalkers” emphasises the line drawings and water colours. It creates the impression of art coming to life rather than thousands of storyboards strung together. It has a spellbinding effect on our eyes and imagination as beautiful linework creates fluidity and expressionism. Meanwhile, the colour scheme is weaponised for further expressionism, be it the tone or the sets. The castle and town are personified with murky greys and browns, while the forest is decorated with vivid greens and yellows. Hayao Miyazaki once said that the beauty of hand-drawn animation is being able to see the human touch within the craft. “Wolfwalkers” is full of that human touch.
Yet the animation also serves as a springboard to the film’s wider merits – that being its characterisation, story, and themes. “Wolfwalkers” is a great example of female empowerment, a theme juxtaposed by its medieval folklore setting. Robyn and Mebh are great foils to each other, but their evolving friendship is as charming as it is well-written, largely in part due to Honor Kneafsey and Eva Whittaker’s immaculate voice work and chemistry with each other. Sean Bean’s voice work as Robyn’s overprotective father is also terrific, with his submission to the tyrannical Cromwell, creating a chilling power dynamic that Robyn and Mebh must fight against for both the wolf tribe and the people of Kilkenny.
“The film engages with its thrilling sense of adventure and jovial tone. The comedy is hilarious and the drama is enticingly authentic, but they both intertwine with the film’s deft handling of action.”
In fact, the film is surprisingly layered in regards to its politics. Its pro-feminist leanings are hardly unique given that this is the same studio that gave us “The Breadwinner” (2017), but it fits in nicely with its folklore setting and its themes on belonging, as both Robyn and Mebh struggle to adjust to their new circumstances and, through each other, find their callings. There are also insights into hierarchical self-righteousness, given Cromwell’s overtly religious beliefs, as was ingrained into English culture at the time, and, of course, the relationship between man and nature. Its environmentalist themes are evocative and central to its style and tone, yet encompass everything else listed too to create a unique blend of style and substance. Think “Brave” (2012) meets “Princess Mononoke” (1997).
Even if we ignore this however, the film engages with its thrilling sense of adventure and jovial tone. The comedy is hilarious and the drama is enticingly authentic, but they both intertwine with the film’s deft handling of action. The film’s scenes of combat and midnight runs are imbued with kinetic energy and suspense, its sensory delights being elevated by its phenomenal character work and creative usage of magical realism. These combined elements crescendo into an utterly mesmerising blend of artistry, adventure, thematic weight, and just general fun.
Frankly, I struggle to see how “Wolfwalkers” could’ve been improved upon. It is a spellbinding visual delight and exciting narrative powerhouse. Its themes are magnetic, its style is lustrous and its story is compelling. If Cartoon Saloon keeps on progressing the way they have been, then it may very well start challenging the likes of Pixar, or possibly the works of Studio Ghibli, in terms of raw emotional power and having an abundance of respect for its family-orientated audiences. “Wolfwalkers” is going to be among childhood favourites for future generations, and, if there is any justice in the world, among future animated classics.