Runtime: 103 Minutes
Directors: Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart
Writer: Will Collins, story by Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart
Voice Actors: Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Tommy Tiernan, Jon Kenny and John Morton
Special Guest Writer: Devin McGrath-Conwell
Ireland-based studio Cartoon Saloon has produced four feature-length animated films since its inception, and “Wolfwalkers” (2020) is their masterpiece. The third in a sequence of stories rooted in Irish folklore, “Wolfwalkers” builds on the artistry of preceding projects “The Secret of the Kells” (2009) and “Song of the Sea” (2014). In “Wolfwalkers”, the creative writing-directing team of Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart, and Will Collins merge deep mythology with a coming-of-age tale centered on two young girls; English colonist Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey), and Irish wild-child Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whittaker). It is that blending of narratives and themes that build “Wolfwalkers” into a film capable of functioning on an array of intellectual and emotional levels, all while doing so in a gorgeous hand-drawn style.
Topically, “Wolfwalkers” sculpts Robyn and Mebh’s friendship into a poignant exploration of bonding across cultural boundaries. Robyn comes to Ireland because her hunter father Bill (Sean Bean) has been hired by the horrifying Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) to exterminate the wolf population around a growing English colonial project in rural Ireland. Mebh is a “wolfwalker,” a human who turns into a wolf when sleeping, and therefore a part of that lupine population. The film mines a great deal of humor from the personality clash between Robyn’s reservedness and Mebh’s frenzied joy, a choice that calls on a long line of buddy comedy tropes. Yet, what allows the relationship to shine and emerge as the film’s beating heart is the centrality of empathy to their closeness. Robyn and Mebh grow towards a sisterly affection as a result of each challenging the other to consider a world beyond their own.
“It is a gem in the Cartoon Saloon filmography but rests in wonderful company from a studio committed to crafting animated triumphs. Start, but don’t stop, with “Wolfwalkers. “
Functioning underneath that emotive face is a striking commentary on the horrors of colonization that Ireland has suffered at England’s hands over the centuries. “Wolfwalkers” positions its tale in the lineage of films that set the orderly village versus the violent wild but succeeds in turning it inside out to reveal the inherent evil of the colonial project. Much of this comes by way of the plot which allows us to revel in the exuberant wolf community, a point that stands in contrast to the oppressive regime within the colonial gates. Yet, it is also hammered home by masterful aesthetic choices. The forest is a stream of lush greens, shimmering golds, and flowing lines that invite the eye to relax. Every corner of the village is defined by harsh angles, soul-sapping greys, and the occasional explosion of vicious, fiery, red.
“Wolfwalkers”, therefore, falls into the hallowed animation lineage defined by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, hand-drawn films of rich texture assembled to excite the eyes as much as move the soul. It is a gem in the Cartoon Saloon filmography but rests in wonderful company from a studio committed to crafting animated triumphs. Start, but don’t stop, with “Wolfwalkers”. I guarantee you’ll want to keep living in the world as the folks at Cartoon Saloon see it.