REEL Review – Wolfwalkers (2020)

Director: Tom Moore, Ross Stewart | 1h 43mins | Animation, Drama, Family

Rooted in Irish folklore, Wolfwalkers follows Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) as she and her father move from England to Kilkenny to wipe out a wolf pack in the way of a towns expansion. She meets Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a fabled wolfwalker, and they attempt to find Mebh’s absent mother.

Animation studio Cartoon Saloon have sneakily created a brilliant catalogue of animated features, rounding out their Celtic mythology trilogy with their fourth film in Wolfwalkers. The three previous outings (including The Breadwinner from 2017) have all been nominated for Best Animated Feature by the Academy, and don’t be surprised if you see this on the ballot next year too.

They’ve carved a visually style setting them apart from the standard of computer generated animation, even though it’s 2D the visuals are full of life and character, elevating the ‘flat’ look to be something else entirely. The use of framing is incredibly original also, some of the more intense scenes has the letterbox start moving and become almost hand drawn, crushing what’s in frame and emphasising the intensity further. Saying this though, there are a few moments where you’ll need to double take to understand the background behind them – whilst on the edge of the woods, for example, the town is like a tall painting behind them, and needs another look to appreciate the layout.

The story follows English born Robyn Goodfellowe as she moves to a town in Kilkenny, Ireland bordering a large forest inhabited by wolves. Her father, Bill (Sean Bean) is an expert wolf catcher hired by the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) to finish them off, but the locals aren’t impressed with their new authority, and fear the wolves more than him and his soldiers. Robyn struggles to fit in, wanting to be a hunter like her father but pulled into the menial cleaning and kitchen tasks instead. We’re introduced to the wolfwalkers early, Mebh and her mother stop the pack of wolves from killing a local woodsman, healing his wounds afterwards.

There’s no hiding the influence of the real life invasion of Ireland by Oliver Cromwell, set in 1650 the hatred of the English is in the very lifeblood of many of the characters, making Robyn’s adjustment and Bill’s job that much harder. As well as this, there is the inspiration from Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke (1997), but instead of Wolfwalkers being an Irish version of this, Cartoon Saloon have created something unique. Many of the same themes are touched upon, but directors Tom Moore and Ross Stewart have made it its own and used the folklore to explore Irelands history more.

Though labelled as a family film Wolfwalkers is much more layered than this, not just in the animation style but in the tone and story also. Touching on colonialism isn’t the only mature element though, as our relationship with nature and waning appreciation for the woods and greenery for the sake of expansion plays a major part, the complex relationship Robyn and Bill have and the constant cloud of loss hangs overhead.

Midway through there is a sudden development, not necessarily a twist but it certainly changes the course of the story you thought was unfolding.

Shortly after Robyn meets Mebh, she realises the rumours are true, and see’s how the wolfwalker is human whilst awake, but changes into a wolf once asleep. Mebh’s mother (voiced by Maria Doyle Kennedy) is asleep though, and has been for some time, as she left to find a new place for their pack to live, and has been gone for a while. Robyn becomes torn, as she makes a unlikely new friend in Mebh, but can’t tell her that the hunter trying to catch them is her father – Bill himself isn’t overly keen on kill the wolves, but it’s not just the job to him, as he’s a widower he finds every way he can to make Robyn safe.

Creating this dynamic between the characters propels the story forward with ease, midway through there is a sudden development, not necessarily a twist but it certainly changes the course of the story you thought was unfolding, and many unexpected moments at the end make it feel original and unique.

Although the writing often keeps up with the same quality as the animation and originality, some of the dialogue does feel clunky and forced, especially in the earliest scenes. The first interactions between the two girls has Mebh say some slightly awkward lines, the odd one may make you wince a little as it doesn’t seem to fit with everything else.

Without prior knowledge it’d be hard to expect the level of emotional engagement Wolfwalkers has, examining multiple relationships between children and their parents, friendships in your early years and ourself with nature, even touching on the oppressiveness of a demanding character in charge. The only major criticism you could have is the runtime, though 103 minutes isn’t overly long for a animation it may have faired well with some script tightening.

This is only a minor critique though. Much like the aforementioned Studio Ghibli, Cartoon Saloon is elevating the family animation not just with mature and complex themes but original stylisation and using their cultural heritage to create unique and though provoking pieces, Wolfwalkers being the latest in a excellent string of films.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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