PLOT: Set in 17-century Ireland, a young girl who wishes to be a wolf hunter just like her dad meets a young Wolfwalker living in the woods, and soon has her eyes opened to the magical world around her and the reality of the grim world she’s been living in.
REVIEW: It’s rare that an animated movie comes along that’s able to enthrall children and parents in equal measure, and not only is WOLFWALKERS that exact kind of movie – but much like the Celtic tales and myths that inspired it – I expect it will have a special place in the hearts and minds of audiences for quite some time. Brought to life with mesmerizing 2D animation that’s always managing to leap off the screen in surprising ways, and filled with charming characters and a level of heart that will turn you into a crying mess, there’s a complexity to the tale that, as young viewers grow and continue watch it again and again, they will mine more of its philosophical depths and grow to appreciate it in a way only their parents are lucky enough to right now.
A fantastical tale set in centuries-past Ireland, WOLFWALKERS from writer Will Collins, directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart and studio Cartoon Saloon, begins as many a’ fairytales we’ve heard have, meaning it involves a child, a hunter, and a mystical forest. Here, our young heroine, Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), travels from England to a new kingdom so her father, Bill (Sean Bean), can hunt down some wolves that are stopping workers from chopping down the forest. Delightfully roguish and eager to be just like her dad, she ventures off after him into the woods to hunt some beasties, only come face-to-face with a mythical Wolfwalker – a person who exists as a person during the day but as a wolf by night – which in this case is the young Mebh (Eva Whittaker). Armed with a massive mop of red hair, sharp teeth, an army of wolves and is essentially the coolest feral child ever, she shows Robyn that wolves are better to pet than shoot, and the woods are a truly magical place – especially compared to the dreary “Towny” life behind castle walls.
Anyone who’s familiar with fairy tales or has seen any other movie where two people from different walks of life come together may know where this song and dance are going – but through the lens of such stunning animation – this story feels fresh and reminiscent for this tired adult of an age when storytime before bed was the norm. The illustrative animation with expressive linework makes every breathtaking frame feel like it was ripped right out of your favorite storybook, and there is no shortage of shots and sequences sure to make you wide-eyed and swept away. Particularly sequences in the forest, like when Robyn and Mebh spend the day and night barreling between the trees, a pack of wolves running at their side with the fluidity of flowing river, emphasize the other-worldly realm these kinds of mythical tales can live in. The castle is bleak and depressing and filled with unsavory people, but just beyond the trees is a world that’s truly wondrous. The music of Bruno Coulais, Kíla and Aurora add a folksy, sweeping score to all, evoking rich lore and boundless imagination.
The more time Robyn spends in the forest and away from her overbearing father – whom you can’t help but sympathize with – the more she begins to break free from her own repressive chains and see the world with liberated vigor. Her father and the scullery maid who makes her wash dishes all day toss out the motto “Work is prayer,” teaching the message that the only way to keep your head on straight is to toil away at whatever meandering job needs doing. As much a charming tale of two friends from different worlds coming together as it is a condemnation of the industrialism complex (borrowing from the works of Tolkien), WOLFWAKERS is a movie that, as it goes on, increasingly blends the visual and emotional majesty with a profound narrative depth. Collins, Moore, and Stewart aren’t afraid of digging deeper into the darker elements of the story, and not only is it a much smarter movie because of it, but it’s one that becomes all the more engaging and emotionally resonant.
It’s masterful how terrifying the story gets without ever feeling like it’s stepping over a boundary, and that’s especially impressive when you consider the villain, the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney), a religious extremist who wishes to expand the teaching of the Lord far beyond the vast forest at their doorstep. The movie could’ve gotten away with him being a stuffy, greedy and ultimately goofy overlord like we’ve seen in a dozen animated films, but in a movie that pushes its PG rating, themes of religious imperialism add more layers. He’s vicious and believes the power of God can “tame” the wolves and prove to be almighty, furthering solidifying his hold over the citizenry. As the movie gets into the third act some of the heavier elements come with a shift in animation and color scheme, with deep red fires and grey overcast foreshadowing a sense of doom and genuine terror. The masses snarling and screaming for the execution of a wolf are far more horrifying than anything else in the woods. This then escalates to a gripping final act, featuring arresting images of wolves and soldiers clashing.
Through it all, the performances from the whole cast stand out, especially from Kneafsey and Whittaker. Spirited and never shying away from the heartbreaking elements, these two young actors clearly threw their hearts and souls into these two incredibly likable and complex characters and more than succeed in carrying the whole thing. McBurney and Bean are excellent too, with the former really delving into the zealot madness of Cromwell, and Bean conveys Bill’s emotionally exhausted but loving father, making sure that no matter how strict or stubborn he may be towards Robyn, you always want to root for him to have a change of heart.
With a story this grand and fantastical you can also expect to cry your heart out by the end, deviating from an ending you may expect going in for something even more heart-warming and rewarding. Computer animated movies from the likes of Disney, Pixar Dreamworks and more may get the lion’s share of the attention, but this is the year of the wolf, and WOLFWALKERS will no doubt stand tall as one of the year’s very best when all the tabulating is done. Visually magnificent, profound, wonderfully acted and with a big-beating heart that will stay with you for some time, WOLFWALKERS is a tale worth revisiting for ages to come.