In the world of animation, a precious few studios dominate the conversation. Pixar, DreamWorks, and Studio Ghibli are righteously praised for their efforts, but a myriad of studios put out efforts just as admirable. One of these is Wolfwalkers, the newest production from Irish studio Cartoon Saloon.
Co-directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, Wolfwalkers gets off to a bit of a slow start. The year is 1650 in the Irish town of Kilkenny. An authoritarian Lord Commander (Simon McBurney) seeks to destroy the wolf population threatening to disturb the peace in his slowly crumbling town. He hires kindly hunter Bill Goodfellow (Sean Bean) to spearhead the task, with his young daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) in tow.
It’s through Robyn’s eyes that Wolfwalkers finds its narrative. Due in part to Kneafsey’s spirited performance, this is hardly a chore. Innocent, though highly honorable and intuitive, Robyn is a bang-up protagonist that’s a joy to follow regardless of the situation. Unfortunately, screenwriter Will Collins leans on her character a bit too much to carry the first act through. Little of consequence happens as Robyn wanders Kilkenny other than reaffirming a character that’s already crystal clear enough. It’s as if Collins doesn’t have faith in the audience to get the idea of who Robyn is. Nevertheless, there’s some strong development of the father-daughter relationship between Robyn and Mr. Goodfellow here that makes things worthwhile.
A strength present across the entirety of the film is absolutely stellar animation. Refining the look internationally recognized through the Academy Award-nominated The Secret of Kells (of which Tomm Moore also directs), it’s hard to describe Wolfwalkers‘ look. You just have to see it for yourself. It’s a series of contradictions; elegant and messy, refined and child-like. It’s impossible to take the eye off of it, as it’s a look that is completely unique even still.
That animation guides the film to its vastly improved second and third acts. The story of Wolfwalkers picks up significantly upon the introduction of Mebh (Eva Whittaker). She is a child Wolfwalker, a person who transforms into a wolf whenever they sleep. Through an act of happenstance, Mebh bites Robyn in her wolf form, turning her into one of the Wolfwalkers herself. Bound by this shared ability, the two are forced to stick together.
Wolfwalkers is a film of relationships, with Robyn and Mebh’s unlikely friendship resting at its core. Mebh is everything Robyn wants to be. She’s wild, free, unbound by any duty to her pack, and watching these grow together and interact is earnest magic. A show-stopping scene where Mebh trains Robyn, set to Aurora’s “Running with the Wolves”, breathtakingly exudes the joy these two experience in their wolf forms.
From that scene onwards, there’s little, if any, Wolfwalkers doesn’t do right. Its story is a familiar one, touching on the conflicts of man vs. nature, daughter vs. father, governance vs. the people. Yet, those familiar trappings don’t harm the film, but enhance it. Through a climax filled with much blood (and audience tears) shed, Wolfwalkers has total confidence in its story, and as such feels like an authentically told piece of folklore that could be passed down through generations.
Like folkore, Wolfwalkers is a film that will hold meaning to all audiences. It’s beautiful to look at, has a beating heart, and the hallmarks of a well-told story, although it takes a while to get there. For all the Pixars and DreamWorkses of the world, it’s time Cartoon Saloon got its proper due. – James Preston Poole
Wolfwalkers is now streaming on Apple TV+.