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?


Top 10 Films of 2020 + 15 Honorable Mentions

Hello everyone!! My picks of favorite movies of the year is here! Per FlixChatter tradition, I usually wait until mid January to post the obligatory Top 10 Best list.

I always have to preface this kind of post that there are still plenty of 2020 movies I have not seen yet: Minari, Da 5 Bloods, The Assistant, Miss Juneteenth, The Forty-Year-Old Version, Sound of Metal, Promising Young Woman, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, etc. which might alter my current Top 10. All the films were released in 2020, though I might have watched a couple of them in 2021. I got more screeners this year than ever before, but somehow I still don’t do a good job of logging just how many films I’ve watched. So for sure my goal in 2021 would be to better log my movie-watching on Letterboxd.

It goes without saying of course, that everyone’s list is personal… my criteria is that a film makes a lasting impression on me, combining the virtue of being entertaining, deeply-moving, thought-provoking and indelible. Replay-ability is a factor I take into consideration as well, though I don’t necessarily want to rewatch every single film on my list. Well without further ado, here we go… 

Top 10 Films of 2020

(in random order – I don’t usually rank my top 10)

1. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

It took me a long time to finally watch this movie. Somehow I wasn’t wowed by the trailer and took me a while to overcome my silly prejudice about it. Of course, by the time I’m done watching it, I was like, ‘what took me so long?! That was awesome!!’ Margot Robbie is phenomenal as Harley Quinn, though to be honest I wasn’t too keen on her in Suicide Squad, but that movie was utterly rubbish. Props to Robbie, director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson for creating Harley as a crazy, unhinged character but yet still vulnerable that you can’t help but empathize for. Per my friend Vitali’s review, she spent three years developing the project under her own production company and the result is one of the best DCEU movies to date. The ensemble cast is fantastic – Ewan McGregor is quite fun as the villain, but I’m really impressed by Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Ella Jay Basco.

2.Pixar’s Soul (full review)

This one is still fresh in my mind as I just reviewed it. I didn’t even realize that Onward was released the same year. Though I enjoyed that one, it was far more frivolous compared to this one. I love so many things about this movie… the delightful characters, the beautiful visuals, the music, but most of all, the way Pixar gives an imaginative insight into humanity in the most delightful way. Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey provide great voice work here, but I really love hearing Angela Bassett‘s smooth voice as the sassy Dorothea Williams, one of those great Pixar characters I’d love to see a spinoff on.

3. The Dissident

I’m glad I always waited to make my top 10 until mid January, as there’s always a film or two from the year prior that I didn’t get to see until recently. Well, this year, that film is this documentary about the disappearance of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi when he entered the Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul. Well we have since know that he was brutally murdered, while his fiancée was waiting for him outside the embassy. Gripping, chilling, heartbreaking… it’s especially sad that no streaming giant made a bid for this film, most notably Amazon, given Jeff Bezos was actually featured in the film, shown as lending his support to Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz at his memorial. But obviously money talks as Netflix + Amazon are both doing business with the Saudis. Well, I hope you’d give this outstanding film by Bryan Fogel, who risked his life making this film, exposing a global cover-up perpetrated by the very country Khashoggi loved. The film played like a dark thriller, except more terrifying as it actually happened.

4. The Personal History of David Copperfield (full review)

Dev Patel has become one of my favorite actors. He’s truly come a long way since starring in the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire in 2008. I know people were all enamored with his mane in LION, which shows how Patel has grown to be a dishy hunk. But he’s also proven to be a versatile and talented actor. I’m glad he got a chance to play a titular literary character in this delightful adaptation. Director Armando Iannucci created a fresh take on a classic with a gleeful adventurous spirit, full of colorful adventure as well as heartbreaking poignancy. I really can’t wait to see Patel tackle another iconic literary character who’s typically played by a Caucasian actor, The Green Knight. Hope that one gets released soon!

5. Wolfwalkers

I’ve been a fan of Tom Moore‘s work for a while. The first Cartoon Saloon’s movie I saw was The Secret of Kells, then The Song of the Sea. This one is the third movie of Moore’s Irish Folklore Trilogy and it could very well be my favorite! It focuses on a young apprentice hunter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) and her father (Sean Bean) journey to Ireland to help wipe out the last wolf pack. But everything is turned upside down when she befriends a free-spirited girl Mebh (Eva Whittaker) who can talk to wolves. Mebh is so adorable with her huge eyes and even bigger mane, you just can’t take your eyes off her! This movie is simply magical… there’s a mesmerizing quality in its stunning, ethereal animation style, where each frame is rendered in such impeccable details. But it’s not just hollow beauty, but it’s also a deep, touching story celebrating unity and friendship. I think this movie also feels timeless, one that both kids and adults can enjoy for years to come.

6. Nomadland

I’m waiting to post my full review of this until close to its release in mid February. If you get a chance to see this on the big screen, do so as the visuals is really quite stunning. A beautiful piece of Americana as a woman embark on a journey through the American West… seen through the eyes of an immigrant. Like Chloe Zhao‘s previous film The Rider, it’s a deeply immersive and mesmerizing film. Frances McDormand is wonderful in a quiet, reflective role and she’s really believable as a modern-day nomad. Zhao mixes award-winning actors (David Strathairn plays a supporting role) with non-actors in a pretty seamless way. In an era where there’s so much constant noise online, it’s so refreshing to watch a  quiet film that allows you to ruminate on the themes presented on screen.

8. Sylvie’s Love

Confession: After I saw this film, I honestly didn’t think it’d end up on my best-of-the-year list. Even though I find it beautiful and swoon-worthy, but there’s something wanting, which I’ll go into more details in my review (currently still in my draft folder). At the same time, as a fan of romance dramas, there’s a lot to like and even admire in this film… Tessa Thompson is simply luminous as a romantic lead and newcomer Nnamdi Asomugha is wonderful in the title role. I wish Hollywood makes more romance films like this one–not a rom-com or tragic romance, but an escapist love story that’s still grounded in the reality of its time.

8. News Of The World

There are few actors working today as reliable as Tom Hanks. I hadn’t heard of this film before I was provided with a screener. It turns out to be Hanks’ first Western, which is surprising to me as he seems to be a fan of the genre (I remember hearing him tell a story of Clint Eastwood treating his actors like horses on many talk shows, thanks to his experience doing a Western). This is another winning collaboration between him and Paul Greengrass since Captain Phillips, who’s also never done a Western before. I was also incredibly impressed by young German actress Helena Zengel who was able to match Hanks’ intensity here, which is quite a feat considering the film consist mostly just the two of them.

9. The Life Ahead

One of the most notable comeback in recent memory… though it’s actually only my second time watching a Sophia Loren‘s movie. This movie was directed by Loren’s own son, Edoardo Ponti, a remake of a French film Madame Rosa (1977). Loren plays an woman running a daycare service living in a seaside town of Bari in Southern Italy. She strikes an unlikely friendship with a Senegalese boy Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) who she reluctantly took in. I have my review in the draft folder, so I won’t say much more, but it’s easily one of my favorite films I saw in 2020.

10. Mr. Jones (full review)

It’s too bad so few people talked about this movie, as it’s one of the most memorable historical drama in recent memory. Superbly directed by Agnieszka Holland from a script by Andrea Chalupa, whose own grandfather suffered the Holodomor, the man-made famine-genocide in Ukraine ordered by Stalin in early 1930s that killed many Ukranians. I’ve loved James Norton‘s work in many British period dramas, so I was thrilled to see him in a lead role and he’s more than capable portraying real life Welsh journalist Gareth Jones. It’s eerie that Jones suffered similar fate as Jamal Khashoggi for bravely exposed the truth, which put him in direct opposition with a powerful government leader.


15 Honorable Mentions

There’s no ‘science’ in picking a top 10 list… mostly just gut instinct and personal preference. Some of the movies here I like very, very much and I have actually enjoyed more than the ones on my main top 10. Some I appreciate but I don’t really feel like watching it again.

(in alphabetical order)

  1. Bad Education
  2. The Banker
  3. Emma (full review)
  4. Enola Holmes (full review)
  5. The Gentlemen
  6. The High Note 
  7. Just Mercy (full review)
  8. The Nest (full review)
  9. The Old Guard (full review)
  10. Onward
  11. Radioactive (full review)
  12. The Social Dilemma (full review)
  13. TENET (full review)
  14. Uncle Frank (full review)
  15. Wander Darkly (full review)

Well, what do you think of my Top 10 list? Any of your favorites on the list?