Hand-drawn animation is a fast-disappearing art in a medium that has come to value mass appeal and mass production over the careful study of tradition. It’s a bittersweet reality that resonates strongly with Cartoon Saloon’s latest animation masterwork, Wolfwalkers. A dazzling, majestic love letter to the disappearing Irish folklore that was once so prevalent all over the country, and that once nestled in the hearts of all its people, Wolfwalkers is about that last gasp of a bygone era and the wonder that it still holds.
Cartoon Saloon is one of the last animation studios holding down the fort on 2D animation, with three tremendous films under the belt: The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner. But this little independent studio operating out of Kilkenny, Ireland is doing more than hanging onto a form of animation that reminds us all of a simpler time — Cartoon Saloon is daring to do something really fresh and innovative with 2D animation. The studio’s films draw from its Irish roots, with both The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea taking inspiration from Irish folklore and mythology to create Saloon’s signature flat Celtic art styles that look like medieval tapestries brought to vibrant, wondrous life. Wolfwalkers, a 17th century epic that brings to an end Cartoon Saloon’s informal trilogy of films about Irish folklore, is the culmination of the studio’s envelope-pushing work: a heartfelt tale of love and loss enveloped in the lushly animated storybook from your dreams.
Wolfwalkers follows a young English girl in a strange Irish town, Robyn (a spunky, charming Honor Kneafsey), whose father Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean, tapping into every goodhearted nobleman he’s ever played) has been hired by the town’s Lord Protector (Simon McBurney, dialing up the loathsome Puritanical villain to the nth degree) to wipe the last of the wolf pack living in the nearby woods. Robyn aspires to be a hunter like a father and eagerly offers to help him on his hunting trips, but the town’s Puritanical views and Bill’s grief over his late wife leads him to shut her away in their house for her protection. But Robyn escapes the town, slipping outside the towering city walls to the woods with her hawk Merlyn, losing her father but spotting a nearby wolf attack on a group of woodcutters. In the fray, she accidentally shoots Merlyn with a crossbow instead of the wolf, to her horror. But before she can inspect Merlyn’s wound, the pack of wolves take her hawk and disappear into the woods, apparently at the beck and call of a smaller wolf with kind eyes, which — when Robyn blinks — appears to look like a young girl for a brief second.
Robyn fearfully enters the woods to chase after Merlyn and gets caught in one of her father’s traps, the small wolf appearing again to free her from the trap, only to accidentally bite her during the attempt. Determined to save her bird and prove herself a worthy hunter, Robyn chases the wolf deeper into the woods, and discovers a strange, magical world within it. The wolf enters the body of a sleeping young girl, the feral and hyperactive Mebh (inimitable newcomer Eva Whittaker, whose wild and ferocious performance dares the rest of the film to keep up with her), who embodies the film’s explosive animation style. Mebh barely sits still for a second, bounding around the perplexed Robyn with suspicion, hostility, curiosity, and excitement, flashing through all those emotions within a split second. The two becomes fast friends, especially after it turns out that Mebh’s bite had turned Robyn into a Wolfwalker like herself: a human with the ability to turn into a wolf when they fall asleep, controlling the packs of wolves that roam the Irish countryside.
But their brief ecstasy at finding this kinship with each other is cut short when Robyn is locked away by her furious father after he discovers she ventured outside the city walls, leaving Mebh to sorrowfully wait for Robyn and her mother Moll, who ventured out in wolf form weeks ago to find them a new home. But Robyn soon discovers a secret within the city walls about Moll’s whereabouts, and the film’s stakes ramp up to an almost impossibly tense degree — as a vengeful Mebh threatens to make war with the town and its fearmongering Lord Protector.
There’s the spirit of Studio Ghibli within Wolfwalkers too — both visually and thematically. Aside from the obvious parallels to the epic ecological war of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (there is even a shot of a stag that looks eerily similar to that of the first glimpse of the Spirit of the Forest) and the dreamy trip into a pastoral wonderland of My Neighbor Totoro, Moore and Ross cite The Tale of Princess Kaguya as a source of inspiration — and that latter film’s influence becomes clear in the sketch-like animation style, which feels as if some strange magic has been placed on a storybook that brought it to life. The aforementioned Ghibli films’ melancholic undertones also touch on the deeper themes within Wolfwalkers as well, of the disappearing way of life that oppressive colonialists are only so happy to wipe out, and the well-intentioned people who inadvertently may bring about that end.
Where there was a slow-burning, arthouse prestige to Cartoon Saloon’s past films, Wolfwalkers bursts with wild energy, threatening to erupt beyond the roughshod lines of the characters and the intricately detailed backgrounds with which they interact, and spill out of the screen. Because Wolfwalkers is more than just pretty — though every exquisite frame, which directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart and their incredible animation team make sure retains their rough outlines, deserves to be placed in a museum. It’s animation that manages to tap into every physical sense and evoke a visceral feeling of awe, fear, excitement at every turn. Surreal sequences which visualize Robyn’s “wolfvision” veer into the synesthetic, as the entire screen is enveloped in a trippy black light, the scents of people and animals showing as starry trails of light.
Though Wolfwalkers is easily the most commercial of Cartoon Saloon’s films, and the first with an outright villain, its more familiar child-adventure beats are only supplemented by its breathtaking animation. The kaleidoscopic color and backbreaking movement make for a truly singular animation experience that is unrivaled in today’s 2D animation landscape — nay, animation in general.
/Film Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Wolfwalkers opens in select theaters today, but will make its streaming debut on Apple TV+ on December 11, 2020.
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