A young apprentice hunter and her father journey to Ireland to help wipe out the last wolf pack. But everything changes when she befriends a free-spirited girl from a mysterious tribe rumored to transform into wolves by night.
I’ve been a longtime fan of Cartoon Saloon, an Irish Animation Studio based in Kilkenny, Ireland that’s earned five Academy Award nominations, including this one. Wolfwalkers marks the last of the Celtic folklore trilogy that starts with The Secret of Kells (my intro to the Cartoon Saloon) and Song of The Sea, this time directed by Tomm Moore (one of the studio’s founders) and Ross Stewart. Once again, the main draw for me is the stunning visuals, merging traditional art techniques with modern digital methods.
The story takes place in mid 1600s Ireland in the town of Kilkenny where residents are ordered to clear the neighboring woods for farming from an authoritative Lord Protector (Simon McBurney). Now, a pack of wolves are living in the woods and Cromwell have summoned hunter Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) to help exterminate them as they’re scaring the woodcutters. Bill’s daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) is a rebellious teen who feels confined in Kilkenny, so of course, she defies her dad’s order to stay put and sneak out to the woods herself with her pet falcon, Merlin.
I love a story of unlikely friendship and that’s a frequent theme used in Moore’s animated features. So that’s the case again here when a mysterious girl who lives amongst the wolves end up becoming friends with Robyn. In all of the promos for Wolfwalkers, there’s always this striking image of a girl with huge eyes and even bigger orange mane. I’m immediately mesmerized by Mebh (Eva Whittaker) who calls herself a ‘wolfwalker’ as she can talk to wolves. Despite Robyn’s initial hesitation (naturally people are afraid of things they don’t understand), the two form a bond as they’re both free-spirited and also feel misunderstood. As it turns out, the ‘wolfwalkers’ are in search of a new home, So Robyn devices a plan for a nonviolent way to free the woods of the wolves, but Bill simply wouldn’t hear of it and gets upset with Robyn for being disobedient.
It’s interesting too that Robyn’s rather strained relationship with her over-protective father is in direct contrast to how close Mebh’s bond is with her mother who hasn’t come back from her travels. There’s an emotional scene when Mebh is distressed and misses her mother, surrounded by her wolf family who are equally sad, and you just feel for them. She may appear cool and confident, but just like any kid, she longs the care of her parent and that is a universal familial theme anyone can relate to.
The supernatural aspects of the Irish mythology is fascinating and certainly makes for some magical hand-drawn visuals. I absolutely love the ‘transformation’ sequences where the human turns into wolves and vice versa. Though I’ve seen other Cartoon Saloon movies and familiar with their work, I think Wolfwalkers take the visual flair up several notches. The colors, attention to detail, everything is so distinctly unique and sets it apart from other animated features. Even though the technique is obviously state-of-the-art, but there’s still something wonderfully traditional and organic to their drawing that I find so beguiling!
The setting is similar to The Secret of Kells as it’s set in the woods with its lush greenery. Once again, the imagery is so evocative that you could practically smell the trees, flowers, damp moss, and the leafy grounds the characters tread on. Whether at night or during the day, the visuals is always magical to behold.
Story-wise, it draws parallel to real history in terms of how England has had its control over Ireland. But even if we don’t quite know the historical significance, it touches upon the theme of fear and what the leaders consider as ‘evil’ in the world… and the consequence of making enemies with those who are perceived as different from us. The way the Lord Protector demonizes the wolf, and the stern way it’s defending its patriarchy and status quo, is quite relevant to what happens in today’s society.
I grew up watching Disney animated movies, and I continue to appreciate animated features which have grown more and more sophisticated. Of course as I grow older, I crave a deeper story in these films and that’s what this animation studio delivers on top of the stunning visuals. It’s a feast for our eyes as well as ears, as the Wolfwalkers’ soundtrack is also amazing! Frequent Cartoon Saloon collaborator Bruno Coulais composes the ethereal, Celtic-tinged music. I especially love the song used in the trailer, Running with the Wolves, performed by Sofia Coulais and Camille Joutard, but all of them are lovely to listen to.
If I’m allowed to have one gripe however, is that in the final act, the resolution feels a bit too conveniently perfect. SPOILER ALERT (highlight to read) When Bill gets bitten by Moll, Mebh’s mother in wolf form, he too becomes a wolfwalker and ends up attacking the Lord Protector in his wolf form to save his injured daughter. The villain ends up plunging to his death in an epic way, but then Bill quickly embraces his wolfwalker identity and the movie hints that he and Moll find love and they all live happily ever after as they all ride a wagon to find their new home, with the wolves pack running alongside them.
I suppose it’s fine to see a happy ending here, after all it’s a conclusion of the Irish folklore trilogy, I just wasn’t expecting the ‘happily ever after’ trope here. To its credit though, at least it doesn’t feel too saccharine sweet, and given the grim pandemic period we’re all living in, we could all use a happy ending to sweep us off our feet. So thank you, Tom Moore + co. for giving us nearly two hours of beautiful visual feast to escape to. I know I’ll be rewatching this one for years to come.
Moore has been nominated for an Oscar for The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, but has not won. I love that someone started a hashtag #WolfwalkersShouldWin on Twitter and I wholeheartedly agree. I am hoping the third time’s the charm and I’ll be rooting for them come Sunday, April 25!