Wolfwalkers movie review: Cartoon Saloon proves yet again the inimitable artistry of hand-drawn animation
In Wolfwakers, streaming on Apple TV+, the relationship between man and wolf, civilisation and nature, English and Irish, stern patriarch and defiant daughter, becomes tantamount to oppression versus freedom.
castHonor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Simon Mcburney, Tommy Tiernan, Maria Doyle Kennedy
directorTomm Moore & Ross Stewart
Cartoon Saloon's The Breadwinner told the story of a young girl growing up in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Their new film, Wolfwalkers, tells the story of a young girl growing up in 17th century Ireland under English imperialism. Only, the young girl Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) is an English settler, and her father Bill (Sean Bean) a vital cog in the imperialist machine. Oliver Cromwell, referred to as the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) in the film, wants to cut down all the forests for more farmland, but his expansion plans have been disrupted by a wolf pack. So Bill has been brought from England to the Irish town of Kilkenny to take care of the threat.
Kilkenny also happens to be where Wolfwalkers directors Tomm Moore and Paul Young, along with The Breadwinner director Nora Twomey, set up their Cartoon Saloon HQ back in 1999. In the four films they have made since then, the studio has grown into a reliable name in animation, towering over big studio properties about cars and planes, trolls and croods. With The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, Wolfwalkers forms a loose trilogy tethered by a love for the enchanting folklore of Ireland. It continues a winning streak, worthy enough to mention the studio in the same breath as Pixar and Ghibli.
Wolfwalkers, of course, has more in common with Ghibli titles like Princess Mononoke and eco-parables like Avatar, than anything from Pixar.
The relationship between man and wolf, civilisation and nature, English and Irish, stern patriarch and defiant daughter, becomes tantamount to oppression versus freedom.
Patriarchy demands Robyn stay at home and take care of the household when she isn't confined to the scullery. Only, she's young, she's restless and she's a dreamer. She wants nothing more than to go with her father on his hunting adventures and help him get rid of the wolves. As you would expect, her father is a bit of sticker for rules and gender roles. This plays into the way the men are drawn in the film. They are towering figures like the walls imprisoning the young girls and women. Robyn won't stand for it of course. She sneaks out and follows him anyway, accompanied by her trusty falcon Merlin.
Chasing her father in the woods, she discovers there's more to the wolves than meets the eye. On befriending a spry wolfwalker named Mebh (Eva Whittaker), she learns the wolves are being cleared out of their homes to allow for human expansion — a clear parallel to the fate suffered by the Irish under British rule. A little girl as wild as her red hair, Mebh is Merida, Mowgli and more. She is a mythical Irish spirit who can not only communicate with wolves, but also turns into one when asleep. She is also the last of her kind following the mysterious disappearance of her mother.
When the film takes us inside the fortified English settlement, there's an exaggerated flatness to it. The buildings are drawn in different sizes of squares and rectangles with clean, straight lines. The geometric rigidity represents a rigidity of body and mind. Besides society's idea of perfection, it also symbolises the idea of confinement, and the helplessness of being under the thumb of the Lord Protector.
Beyond the walls and deep into the forest, it evokes a different mood. The richly rendered forest can appear both hostile and welcoming, dangerous and peaceful. It is full of spiralling branches and creeping vines. If the use of grey and brown tones imbues the town with a coldness, the forest bursts with the warm colours of autumn. It evokes the feeling that life in the city is mechanical, while in the forest, it is organic. If the lean and menacing Lord Protector personifies the austerity of life in an English colony, the curvy and sprightly Mebh personifies an untamed and unshackled Ireland.
The industry switch to 3D photorealism might give animated films the illusion of depth, but it often comes at the expense of the gorgeous details you get in lovingly hand-drawn 2D. Wolfwalkers builds on the characteristic style of Cartoon Saloon productions, its visual motifs, and compositions firmly rooted in Irish culture, history, and mythology.
Rather than strive for realism, it aims for an expressionist rendering where the environments transfigure based on moods and personalities. It's in these details where the souls of the characters materialise.
While asleep, the wolfwalker's human body remains in bed, and the mind takes the shape of a wolf. The expressionistic quality of Cartoon Saloon's animation is best displayed in a sequence where Robyn turns into a wolf for the first time and sees the world anew through smell. It's a spectacular visualisation of a gateway between two senses. This evolves into a tense chase, where the townsfolk led by her father try to hunt her down as she jumps from rooftop to rooftop.
For the most part, the film maintains a suitable balance between action and reflection, adversity and frivolity. Robyn and Mebh both have Disney-esque tragic backstories, and recognise each other as kindred spirits. Mebh helps Robyn gain her autonomy, and gives her courage to complement her curiosity. When they both get swept up in an epic battle for the soul of the forest and Ireland itself, Robyn must choose between her father and friend. The decision becomes an easy one, when the former represents the oppressor, and the latter the oppressed. As she turns into a wolfwalker herself, her dual identity will hold the key to a resolution of the conflict. Yes, it’s a lot like Avatar, but its analog artistry not only eclipses James Cameron’s digital imagery, but makes it infinitely more re-watchable.
Wolfwalkers is streaming on Apple TV+.
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