A film review by Craig J. Koban January 14, 2021



2020, PG, 103 mins. 

Honor Kneafsey as Robyn Goodfellowe (voice)  /  Sean Bean as Bill Goodfellowe (voice)  /  Simon McBurney as Lord Protector Cromwell (voice)  /  Eva Whittaker as Mebh MacTíre (voice)  /  Tommy Tiernan as Sean Óg (voice)  /  Maria Doyle Kennedy as Moll MacTíre (voice)

Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart  /  Written by Will Collins


Pixar's SOUL has been dominating the recent conversation as of late about animated film releases - and it is indeed quite good - but I personally think that the wonderful WOLFWALKERS is the better offering that's getting lost in the limelight.  

This latest animated fantasy adventure is from the pioneering director tandem Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart via their studio Cartoon Saloon, whose rookie effort in 2009's THE SECRET OF THE KELLS was nominated for an Oscar and cemented their reputations for excellence to come.  That film was followed up with 2014's SONG OF THE SEA, with WOLFWALKERS now rounding off their self-proclaimed "Irish Folklore Trilogy."  Telling a rousing tale set in 17th Century Kilkenny and blending history with fantastical elements in equal fashion, this Apple TV+ release just might be the most uniquely gorgeous animated film of 2020; it's a work that stuns the eyes and stirs the imagination. 

In 1650 Ireland we're introduced to Bill (voiced by Sean Bean), who has pledged his loyalty to Lord Protector (Simon McBurney), who in turn serves as the chief wolf catcher and slayer of the land...and he does so with a ruthless iron fist.  Bill lives a quiet, but sad life as a widow, who now spends much of his days looking after his young daughter in Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), a joyous free spirit who's passionate about discovering everything that the outside world has to offer her.  When Bill isn't trying to keep his energetic daughter from getting into too much trouble he partakes in assignments dished out by Lord Protector, one of which includes ridding the nearby forests of a perceived threat of man-hungry wolves.  Robyn manages to have a rather up close and personal stand-off one day with Mebh (Eva Whittaker), another child that lives in the woods and is revealed to be a "wolfwalker" (she has the ability to transform her spirit into a magical wolf creature while she sleeps, granting her newfangled and amazing abilities).  And, wouldn't you know it, Robyn herself finds herself becoming a wolfwalker as well when she's accidentally bitten by one of these creatures, which sets her down a magical, yet forbidden path, especially as far as her father and his work for Lord Protector goes.  When the wolf-hating leader finds out of their existence he then hatches a ruthless plan to exterminate all of them for good.  This, of course, leaves Bill in the tragically ironic position of having to hunt down his own daughter. 



The central relationship between Robyn and Mebh - both of whom have had to deal with personal heartache in varying forms - is the emotional epicenter of WOLFWALKERS, especially with the plight of Mebh's mother, who cannot awaken from her sleep without the return of her animal doppelganger.  Then there's Robyn herself, who has lost her own mother as well, which allows for her to cement her bond with Mebh all the easier.  Tied into this relationship is the whole concept of the wolfwalkers themselves, and the film manages to do something uniquely its own and different as far as wolf mythology goes.  We've all seen countless cinematic tales of werewolves before, but WOLFWALKERS changes things up a lot: We don't see painful physical transformations of humans into wolves, but rather their souls being transferred into the mythical beasts, who are shown with fiery eyes and bold red hair, making them both beautiful and intimidating all the same.  Even more compelling is that these wolves are able to communicate with each other via thoughts and a telekinetic link.  The truly sad aspect of the wolfwalkers is the fact that they're not really the true monstrous threat to the lands.  It's the humans here and their constant encroachment into nature and uprooting and/or destroying ecosystems and species that are the real villains here, represented by Lord Protector himself.  He does things obsessively because of his faith in God, which he feels more than justifies his violent means, and this puts poor Bill and Robyn in a very thorny predicament as a result. 

There's an intriguing amount of sustained, nail biting tension that slowly simmers throughout WOLFWALKERS, not to mention that it contains many interesting ideas and themes that amalgamate elements of Irish folklore and modern environmental concerns and how they affect those living within them.  WOLFWALKERS has a surprising number of things to thoughtfully say about the mutual relationship between mankind and nature and how both should live in harmony with one another.  This worldview is in stark contrast to Lord Protector's nefarious ideology of feeling righteous in terms of trampling over anyone or anything in his quest to expand his nation's footprint...even if it means exterminating a species and ruining the natural world in the process.  One of the best messages that WOLFWALKERS tries to impart - while thankfully not coming off as overbearingly preachy - is the need to learn how to live peacefully with those we don't fully understand while fighting for the greater good of preserving the environment for future generations.  There's so much going on under the surface of this animated tale, but that's precisely what gives it such an uncommon sophistication as far as these kind of pictures go.   

The real stars of WOLFWALKERS is, without question, the sheer exquisiteness of its animation and world building.  Computers have been used to create the rich visual tapestry at play here, but the underlining technique and resulting style makes the film feel so refreshingly 2D, which is so decidedly rare these days in the genre.  Much of the overall aesthetic here has a gesture drawing looseness to it (you can frequently see the sketchy linework under characters throughout), and it's this improvisational, hand drawn flair to the animation that is the film's real masterful calling card.  Most of the characters themselves are represented with bold line work and sharp geometric shapes, whereas the environments around them pay homage to Celtic iconography that's rendered with both a stark economy that nevertheless has intricate layers of detail permeating the screen.  And the lush and vibrant colors that wash over everything (sometimes breaking through the borders of the linework) is an endlessly awe-inspiring sight to behold (I watched this via a pitch perfect 4K Dolby Vision presentation on Apple TV+, which made the hues pop with an undulating glow).   The primary thing that stood out for me most in WOLFWALKERS was how much this film was trying to abandon the obligatory accoutrements of what contemporary filmgoers expect out of their animated fare (which is usually computer animation that's attempting for a level of hyper realism mixed with exaggeration).  WOLFWALKERS is a rougher kind of animated film, but that makes it more gorgeously innovative for how it stands fully apart from the repetitive sameness of everything else out there.  The more I watched this film the more its hypnotic imagery lured me deeper into its vortex. 

Plus, it's rare for just about any historical fantasy - animated or not - to be both endlessly thrilling as a piece of pure adventure escapism and philosophically engaging  That's an awfully hard balancing act to effectively pull off, but WOLFWALKERS does it all with a confident nonchalance.  Plus, as the story builds to a truly suspenseful and emotionally impactful climax - and one that doesn't pull hard punches or coddle viewers like so many other aggressively soft pedaled animated films do -  it becomes something unexpectedly powerful in the way it moves viewers (and the brilliant voice performances - which I haven't commented on here nearly enough - really help sells the dramatic stakes at play).  Lastly, it's truly commendable how WOLFWALKERS honors and respects its female child characters and portrays them with intelligence and sensitivity, and does so without making them weak victims.  Robyn is a fiercely strong and empowered heroine that tries to buck status quos and get people to listen to her pleas to save what so many others want to destroy...and often for no other reason outside of misguided fear.  What wonderfully timely messages for viewers young and old alike to take out of a film like this.  I watched WOLFWALKERS twice in less than 24 hours (to live in the streaming availability age!), and found it so emotionally charming and visually magnificent during both times.  This is an unqualified artistic triumph through and through, which puts this Cartoon Saloon concoction right up there in the conversation for a Best Animated Picture Oscar alongside the heavy hitter industry players of the industry.

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