Film Review – Wolfwalkers
The animated film Wolfwalkers (2020) has a striking visual palette. The colors and line work have a sketched-out aesthetic, as though characters and environments are being conjured up as the story unfolds. Look closely and you can see the construction lines – you can see the brushstrokes that make up the overall picture. The watercolors fill in spaces like a storybook, none of which follow a traditional animated style. Angles and perspectives feel off center – scenes that should show depth appear flat and vice versa. And everything is made up of sharp edges, from clothing to buildings to even faces. The richness of the textures makes every shot worthy to be put in a frame and hung on a wall.
But the joy of watching this fantasy isn’t just restricted to how beautiful it looks. Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart (along with screenwriter Will Collins) weave a fairytale that pulls us in immediately and never lets up. We’re transported to 17th century Ireland, where men in armor hunt down wolves that prowl in the neighboring forest. This is a world of magic, the kind of place that gives birth to folk legends. The contrast between humans and nature will call to mind the work of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, particularly Princess Mononoke (1997). But Moore, Stewart, and the rest of the production successfully add in a Celtic twist, making this stand up on its own.
Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) is a young girl with dreams of adventure. She loves and admires her father Bill (Sean Bean) and wishes to be a great wolf hunter just like him. Unfortunately, Robyn was born in an oppressive time, where women were not expected to be hunters and instead were meant to work long hours in the scullery (aka kitchen). Bill is a good man and loves Robyn dearly, but he is a product of the system. He may believe that keeping Robyn at home is for her safety, but that prevents him from seeing her true self. His overprotectiveness blinds him from understanding her desires.
Robyn’s life gets turned upside down when she meets Mebh (Eva Whittaker). Mebh is a “wolfwalker,” a human being that can communicate with wolves. When she goes to sleep, Mebh’s consciousness gets transported into the body of a wolf, giving her heightened senses, speed, and strength. Also included is the ability to heal wounds. This new friendship causes Robyn to question everything she knew about wolves. Instead of mindless beasts, she now sees them as unique individual creatures. But her realization puts her right in the middle of the building conflict, as her hometown’s leader, Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) intensifies his orders to rid the forest of the wolves, even if it means burning the whole thing down.
The progressive themes pervading Wolfwalkers are not subtle but are treated seriously and thoughtfully. It isn’t just a case that Robyn is held back by her society because of the era. There are reasons that make us understand how good intentions can devolve into darkness. That is what makes Bill arguably the most tragic figure here. Past trauma has infused his psyche so that Robyn’s safety is his primary motivation, but it’s become so toxic that he struggles to let Robyn go to be her own person. The same can be said of Lord Protector and the rest of the townspeople. Their fear and religious fervor places them inside a bubble of their own making. Any outsiders (such as the wolves) are treated as threats.
It’s refreshing to see a fantasy story where the central relationship is not based on romance. Too often, we are given tales where Prince Charming must defeat the mighty dragon and save the helpless Princess. That is not that case here. The dynamic between Robyn and Mebh is one of companionship and mutual understanding. Mebh shows Robyn all the possibilities of being a wolf and living closer to nature, while Robyn becomes Mebh’s link to the human world. Their personalities clash and complement one another wonderfully. Mebh is more brash and spontaneous, willing to act on her emotions. Robyn is reserved and meticulous, able to plan things out and consider all avenues. Their friendship develops naturally, never once feeling forced or contrived.
Wolfwalkers has everything you can ask for in a great family entertainment – gorgeous animation, multilayered characters, a story that incorporates real world themes, comedy, music, and just the right dash of menace. One can come into this and get wrapped up in the immediacy of the narrative, and then afterwards contemplate the bigger messages it was trying to convey. Even though the runtime builds to almost two full hours, the strength of the storytelling makes it fly by. Too often we get animated movies that pander to the lowest common denominator, settling on being mere distraction. Luckily, this pushes beyond that. Wolfwalkers isn’t just a great animated film, it’s a great film.