FlixChatter Review: Wolfwalkers (2021)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Have you WOLFWALKERS? Well, what did you think?


FlixChatter Review: Song of the Sea (2014)

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Saoirse is a child who is the last of the selkies, women in Irish and Scottish legends who transform from seals into people. She escapes from her grandmother’s home to journey to the sea and free fairy creatures trapped in the modern world.

I’ve been wanting to see this since I saw the trailer exactly a year ago. I was so impressed by the visuals of The Secret of Kells (2009), I adore the hand-drawn animation style where virtually EVERY single scene is worth framing. Five years later, filmmaker Tomm Moore is back with another mythical tale, this time it’s based on an ancient Celtic myth of the selkie, creatures that live as seals in the sea but shed their skin to become human on land (per Wiki).

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Brendan Gleeson is also back as one of the voice cast, but it’s David Rawle as the young boy Ben who’s the lead of the film, along with his younger sister Saoirse who’s mostly silent throughout the film. The story begins with a young boy losing his mother and later on, which prompts his dad Conor (Gleeson) to place Ben and Saoirse with their grandmother in the city. But from there, he ends up embarking on an adventure of his life.

I have to admit the story isn’t too easy to follow at times, but the visuals are so breathtakingly-beautiful I don’t mind so much. I’m not saying this film is more style than substance, as there’s a deep and magical quality of the mythical tale that once you grasp what’s going on, it’s really quite an emotional ride. I admire the tremendous craftsmanship and attention to detail that went into creating each animated piece. The vibrant colors and ethereal quality, paired with the lush Celtic music, it’s like a beautiful lullaby of a movie that transports you into an otherworldly realm.

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Like in The Secret of Kells where you could practically smell the trees and the ground the characters walk on, there’s something so evocative about the ocean landscape in this movie. I could practically feel the sea breeze, the chilly wave and wind of the Irish coast. The visuals is truly a feast for the eyes that the slower pace actually gives you room to appreciate the artwork before you.

This is an absolute must-see for any fan of animated features, or anyone looking for something unique and magical. There’s a heartwarming familial theme makes this a perfect film to watch with the whole family, even though there are perhaps some scenes that might spook really young children.

This movie was among the nominees for Best Animated Features at last year’s Oscar which went to Big Hero 6. Now if I had seen this last year, I would’ve been torn to pick between the two. Both are worthy contenders to be sure, though in terms of visuals, I think this one is more unique. Props to Tomm Moore for creating yet another animated masterpiece. This is only his second directorial project, so I can’t wait to see what else he’ll tackle next!

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What do you think of Song of The Sea?