Kilkenny, Ireland, 1650: A city has walled itself off from the world. But every nook and cranny inside the walled city has been filled with homes and shops. To grow and raise food, the villagers must venture outside the walls and into the plains between civilization and the nearby forest. But more mouths to feed mean more farming and ranching. For that to happen, the forest must be cleared.
So it goes with progress, so it goes in Wolfwalkers, the latest animated feature from Cartoon Saloon, the production company behind Song of the Sea (2014), and The Secret of Kells (2009). All three are either directed or co-directed by Northern Ireland born Tomm More, a damn good track record for a filmmaker in their 40s.
Back to that forest: It’s not just any forest; magical wolves inhabit it. It’s up to Bill (voiced by Sean Bean) to keep those wolves out of town, though his heart doesn’t seem in it. But his daughter’s sure is. She is Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), and she wants nothing more than to go a-huntin’ with her crossbow and trusty falcon, Merlin. Not exactly the activity for a lady, Bill reminds his daughter. Robyn belongs in the scullery—cleaning and cooking for Lord Protector (Simon McBurney).
That sounds like pretty standard stuff, doesn’t it? From that, you can pretty much guess Robyn will disobey her father, and he will pay the price for her insolence courtesy Lord Protector—as the name infers, a man who sees himself as a demigod. He kind of does; he also kind of looks like Governor Radcliffe from Disney’s 1995 animated feature, Pocahontas. Come to think of it, Robyn behaves like a Disney Renaissance heroine: Maybe a little Belle, some Ariel, and a whole lot of Mulan.
But the animation? Top shelf stuff. First, the colors strike you (vibrant), then the character designs (defined). And the two worlds—city and forest—are equally delineated: The city is flat—as if everything has been pushed to the same plane with the Z-axis replacing the Y-axis. Like a page from a Madeline book…
…or a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.
But when Robyn enters the forest, flatness gives way to plunging viewpoints and swirling lines. When she happens on to a pack of wolves, they move like a school of fish.
Robyn heading into the forest on maneuvers sets the story in motion. There she meets Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a wolfwalker with a halo of bright orange hair. Mebh bites Robyn, turning her into a wolfwalker as well. For the rest of her life, Robyn lives her days as a human, nights as a wolf. Given the option, Robyn prefers the wolf. So do Mebh and her mother, Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy), the pack’s matriarch. But Lord Protector has kidnapped Moll’s wolf body, and until Moll as a wolf can reunite with her human form—located deep in the forest—she will not be able to wake.
But the story’s not the reason to watch Wolfwalkers; the images are. It’s one of those movies you could turn the sound off and still be dazzled. You might not be able to follow the story perfectly—there’s some exposition that must be explained—but you won’t feel like you’re missing anything. However, you will miss a couple of songs from Bruno Coulais and Kila, and they’re pretty good.
Directed by Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart
Written by Will Collins
Story by Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart and Jericca Cleland (story and script consultant)
Produced by Tomm Moore, Stéphan Roelants, Nora Twomey, Paul Young
Vocal performances by Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney, Maria Doyle Kennedy
GKIDS, Rated PG, Running time 103 minutes, Streaming on Apple+TV