Much like Laika Studios, Irish animation house Cartoon Saloon has a small catalog of films, but each of them has been extraordinary in their own way, such that each of its previous products – The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner, have all been nominated for the Oscar for Animated Feature. Sadly, also like Laika, they have yet to gain a victory, but that’s mostly because they’ve been up against the stiffest of Disney/Pixar competition. The Secret of Kells lost to Up, which was also nominated for Best Picture, Song of the Sea ran up against Big Hero 6, and The Breadwinner fell to Coco. It’s hard to argue against any of those results, but that doesn’t stop the Saloon from churning out some absolutely gorgeous imagery and stories.
The fourth entry in their short history is Wolfwalkers, the completion of Tomm Moore’s “Irish Folklore Trilogy,” (The Breadwinner is about Taliban-era Afghanistan and was directed by Moore’s partner Nora Twomey), and like its predecessors, it brings an ancient story to life with some of the most fabulous 2D artwork you’re likely to see. I admit I’m probably biased, being mostly Irish myself by heritage, but part of what makes these non-Mouse studios so great is that they are accomplishing now what classic Disney did in the last century, namely giving audiences young and old alike a fresh look at timeless tales that either give you a new perspective on the story or your first ever version of it. Wolfwalkers, I’m happy to say, is a continuation of that gorgeous trend.
Set in 1650 in the town of Kilkenny (I went there once during a summer abroad for school – I bought a South Park parody shirt that said, “Oh my God! I’m in Kilkenny!” because I’m total trash), Wolfwalkers is, at its most basic level, a simple story of friendship and the love between parents and children. But in the grander scheme, it’s a tale of the wonder of nature, the delicate balance in which man and wildlife share the environment, and a parable about occupying forces, represented by the British rule over Ireland that still has not fully abated, with only 3/4 of the country being truly independent as of 100 years ago.
In this story, Kilkenny is still new, little more than a small village surrounding a castle (which still stands – Kilkenny Castle is beautiful if you ever get the chance to see it in person), where a “Lord Protector” voiced by Simon McBurney (heavily implied as and influenced by Oliver Cromwell, though not explicitly named) seeks to clear out the nearby forest to expand his territory, but his efforts are stymied by the local wolf population. He believes anything that cannot be tamed is evil and demonic, so in the name of God he imports English soldiers and conscripts them as hunters to drive the animals out. This is where one half of our leads comes in, widower Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) and his daughter, Robyn (Honor Kneafsey of the Christmas Prince trilogy). Robyn is adventurous and headstrong, hoping to follow in her father’s footsteps – including practicing the crossbow and training a falcon named Merlyn – rather than working as a scullery maid as women of the time were expected to do. The draconian Lord Protector, having been scandalized by a girl being in public, gives Bill a mere two days to exterminate all the wolves under penalty of the stockades, or worse.
Not one to take orders, Robyn follows her father into the woods, but injures her bird while shooting at a wolf. She later finds Merlyn completely healed, but gets snared by a trap. When a wolf comes to free her, Robyn attacks and gets bitten. Upon reaching the wolf’s den, it transforms into another young girl named Mebh (Eva Whittaker). Mebh is a magical “wolfwalker,” a being that can take either human or lupine form, and who – with her mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy) – leads the pack. They want to move on, but Moll is in a dormant state at the moment, and can’t move. That night, the bite wound on Robyn’s arm takes hold, and as Robyn sleeps, her spirit transforms into a wolf while her human form lies on the bed. Mebh has now turned Robyn into a wolfwalker herself, and it’s a race against time for Robyn to convince her father of the magical world around them, and for Mebh to reawaken her mother and get the wolves out of Kilkenny before they’re all wiped out.
The story is, honestly, rather simple, and a lot of the impetus comes from the worn out trope of the rebellious daughter who wants her own way even when basic logic screams to her to take a different approach. But that being said, I was okay with those basic bullet points, because for one thing, the voice acting is absolutely superb. Even when they’re saying things that don’t make a ton of sense, I still believe in the character moments due to the commitment of the performances, especially Sean Bean and Honor Kneafsey.
But even more important, the visuals are such a feast for the eyes that the entire film could be silent and I’d still be rapt. The color scheme is vintage Cartoon Saloon, including their trademark use of wide, expressive eyes for their protagonists. I also love the contrasting designs of the town and the woods, shown right from the beginning in an establishing shot that shows a square, rigid townscape tucked into the upper left corner of the sprawling, rounded hills near the forest. That pattern trickles down to the characters as well, with Robyn’s face and hair being quite geometric and rectangular, while Mebh’s face is round with her circular hair almost spiraling like an auburn conch shell. Robyn’s clothes are strictly angled (as are Bill’s and the Lord Protector’s), including a triangle hood, but Mebh’s design is much more freeform, her hair and clothes filled with leaves and flowing in the breeze, almost like they’re the very swirls of the wind itself.
It’s a wonderful juxtaposition that shows the young audience the differences between the characters, but also their similarities, as there are moments where each side takes on a certain quality of the other. As Bill starts to come around to his daughter’s plight, his clothes and hair flow a bit more freely. When Mebh is in danger, she bares fangs as sharp and pointed as the castle gates. The sides are diametrically opposed (outside of the two main girls), but neither is a monolith (save the Lord Protector), which helps the kids not only root for the happy ending, but see how similar we all are, even if we look different on the surface.
There’s also some great work done with the environments and backgrounds. Inside the town of Kilkenny, especially at night, the light design and shadow work is fantastic, giving every scene just enough suspense to suggest an unsettling presence that may not always be there. On the other side, the scratchy models inside the deep woods and the wolves’ den evokes the idea of cave drawings, but there’s also this lovely glow, as if the forest itself is breathing. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before (at least in concept), but the execution is nothing short of amazing.
Finally, I really loved the overarching morals of the story. It’s one thing to simply say let’s all get along, or let’s take care of the environment and live in harmony with all the creatures of the world, but Wolfwalkers goes a step further. The English occupation is part of Ireland’s national identity, and from the very beginning there are signs of the resentment of 500 years of oppression, especially from local children trying to bully Robyn, and that transfers to the wolves themselves, who see all humans as an invading force, regardless of what shore they originally came from. For much of the film, Mebh refers to Robyn simply as “Townie,” first as a pejorative, then as a term of endearment. It’s one thing to share your culture with others, but another thing entirely to assert yours as dominant, especially when you’re the colonizing force.
These are heavy themes, but the film handles them in a way that serves the young audience without getting them riled up. One of the more brave choices is to have a Cromwell-like figure as the main villain. The Lord Protector isn’t just an occupier, he’s also trying to force his particular version of Christianity down the collective throats of the people. This was true of Cromwell in real life, as he was particularly intolerant and hostile towards Catholics, which represented about 95% of Ireland at the time (more like 75% now), but this isn’t a history lesson about Catholics vs. Protestants. Instead, the film serves as a thesis for the irrational idea of forcing any religion on another person, especially as a means of control or punishment. It’s also an indictment of closed-minded people who would rather rule by fiat based on what they believe rather than taking a look around and seeing what actually is there around them, be it magical or mundane. Why bury yourself in any kind of dogma if it requires you to ignore the wonders all around you? And more importantly, how dare anyone try to subjugate others solely on that basis? That’s a damn good lesson to send to the kids.
These are the kind of things I love about modern animation. Cartoon Saloon, Laika, Ghibli, and so many others are springing up all around the world, telling old tales anew, and engaging with children on their level to teach valuable lessons, mostly because the creators remember what it was like to be kids themselves, to have that sense of imagination and wonder, and retain it as they grew up and learned the realities of the world. Using that art to help usher in the next generation of young minds is equal parts entertainment and public service. A film like Wolfwalkers, which brilliantly uses contrasting shapes and Irish folk history to bridge the gap to the youth of now, is something to cherish, and it’s yet another reason why these small houses tend to enter the modern pantheon with each successive entry.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you ever been to Ireland? What did cartoons teach you about the world? Let me know!