Who knows what mystery occurs
Within the woods, what secret stirs
Outside the realm of man’s mundane
Within the cryptic and arcane
Dimension far from mine and yours?
To know that it exists might be
Enough to bring anxiety,
To paint this aberrant unknown
As one more threat to be o’erthrown,
A cause for endless enmity.
And so it stays the stuff of tales,
In deepest wood and virgin trails,
A whisper easy to ignore,
That men may not endure one more
Concern to tip their tender scales.
MPA rating: PG
I had wanted to post this review for St. Patrick’s Day due to the Celtic roots of a film set in Ireland, but time got away from me. Still, I’m due to get back into writing mode since National Poetry Writing Month is right around the corner. I had been eagerly awaiting the next film from Tomm Moore and the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, but I was disappointed that Apple TV+ got exclusive streaming rights to it. It wasn’t until I finally bit the bullet and subscribed to yet another streaming service (thanks, CODA and Finch, for changing my mind) that I was able to see Wolfwalkers. Thankfully, it was exactly what I wanted it to be, a warm and colorful flight of Irish fantasy that may well be my favorite entry from Cartoon Saloon.
Set in Kilkenny in 1650, Wolfwalkers draws on Celtic mythology, like The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea before it, specifically the notion of forest-dwelling werewolf-like folk who become actual wolves while their human bodies are sleeping. Young Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) is an English girl brought to Ireland by her father Bill (Sean Bean), a hunter commissioned by the dictatorial Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) to clear the nearby woods of all wolves. Not welcomed by the Irish children and reluctant to work as a maid, she desperately tries to help her father, eventually ending up alone in the forest. After a fateful encounter with a Wolfwalker named Mebh (Eva Whittaker), Robyn finds she’s become a Wolfwalker herself and must find a way to save her newfound friend from her own father.
Wolfwalkers has the same distinction I mentioned of The Mitchells vs. the Machines: so many elements of its plot have been seen and done many times before, yet it uses these well-worn tropes so well that it exceeds the sum of its parts. We have the concerned and controlling father figure of The Little Mermaid, the prejudiced nobleman villain of Pocahontas (who even resembles Ratcliffe), the conflict of a supposed enemy turning out to be friendly from How to Train Your Dragon, the look-through-their-eyes transformation of Brother Bear, and I could go on. While I personally love all of these movies too, those who don’t like recycled ideas could easily label Wolfwalkers derivative. Yet the way the story unfolds is so much better than the cut-and-paste formula it might have been. The conflict goes beyond human and wolf, extending to the drudgery of dirty city life compared with the freedom of nature’s communion, and it’s notable that Robyn’s father is kept sympathetic and shown to be similarly hemmed in by the weight of responsibility and expectations. (Some unfortunate religious justification from the villain makes it a church vs. magic hostility too, though there’s also a line connecting the Wolfwalkers to St. Patrick.)
One aspect that certainly helps the film stand out is Cartoon Saloon’s ever-gorgeous animation influenced by illuminated manuscripts, which uses its symmetrical style to full effect in contrasting the dark, angular town of Kilkenny with the lush, painterly backgrounds of the forest. It’s an intoxicating style of picture-book illustration come to fluid life, and it still warms my heart that one lone Western studio is keeping the spirit of 2D animation alive, no matter how much time and effort it takes. In addition, it seems inevitable that I would love a film with a montage set to an Aurora song, the fitting and enchanting “Running with the Wolves.”
While I also loved The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea and admired The Breadwinner, Wolfwalkers feels like Cartoon Saloon’s most complete and satisfying film yet (with a 99% Rotten Tomatoes score to back it up), though I am still partial to Song of the Sea too. It well could have won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in one of Pixar’s off years, but Soul proved too strong a contender. Even so, Wolfwalkers is an animated delight that feeds my inner fondness for all things Celtic and distinguishes itself from similar stories with exceptional artistry and a winning blend of friendship and myth.
© 2022 S.G. Liput
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