Irish mythology has found glorious ambassadors in director Tomm Moore and the team at animation studio Cartoon Saloon. Their Oscar-nominated titles “The Secret of Kells” (2009) and “Song of the Sea” (2014) are visionary renderings of their homeland’s lore, and with “Wolfwalkers,” an epic and dramatically mature triumph, a perfect trilogy is complete.
From its opening sequence, Moore’s new feature, this time co-directing with Ross Stewart, flaunts its handcraft in the intricately designed backgrounds and ocher-heavy color palette. Paws to ground, though they seem to float, a pack of wolves runs through a forest near the small town of Kilkenny, Ireland in 1650 (the very place where the studio is based today). At first glance their sharp teeth scare the locals, yet their intentions are protective not predatory.
Under English rule, this puritan society fears the “beasts” that lurk in the untamed land beyond the walls that encage them. Inside its bounds, free-spirited English girl Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), who has a knack for hunting with her trusted pet hawk Merlin, refuses to relinquish her independence to be groomed into an obliging housekeeper. Her loving, but overly compliant father Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) has been tasked with eradicating all wolves from the area at all costs. Robyn will soon have a problem with that job.
Positioned at the center of Will Collins’ powerful screenplay, that father-daughter relationship recognizes parents as imperfect people, who are afraid, who fail to have all the answers, but continue to try to make sense of the world for their children. Explored with great emotional depth, absent with this potency in most American children fare, the bond is tested and evolves as Robyn asserts her own moral principles.
That transition, from hunting enthusiast to an animal protector, begins after meeting Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a rambunctious girl with a red mane whose feral appearance hints at her true identity: she is a wolfwalker. In Irish folktales these individuals are described as having the ability to leave their bodies behind while they sleep, as their spirits take the physical form of a wolf. Through the limitless visual invention animation allows, these transformations materialize as bright golden energy detached from their flesh-and-bone enclosures.
Of the many moments of wondrous delight in “Wolfwalkers,” a showstopper comes when Mebh shows Robyn, for the first time in her wolf form after being bitten, the strength of traveling in a pack and roaming their domain at leisure, without anything to hold them back. Set to Norwegian singer Aurora’s song “Running with Wolvers” (it’s incredible the track wasn’t written specially for the film), the pair rejoices in the unrestrained freedom of the scene.
Their lovely sisterly bond, however, later gets tangled in the adults’ strife. Mebh’s mother, her essence specifically, has gone missing, and the threat of destruction at the hands of the fear-mongering English feels closer as days go by and Robyn’s father fails to accomplish his deadly mission.
Stylistically, Moore and Stewart’s artistry reject realism of movement or the traditional constructions of frames—on occasion the action is shown in a flat plane with figures moving through a painting that resembles a map. There’s fluidity in how the characters interact with environment, sometimes becoming one in a swirling embrace.
Each frame gives the impression of being an illustration invoked from the pages of a beautiful old tome, and in that sense the film evokes “The Secrets of Kells,” which gets a shootout in a clever Easter egg. Also among the unique traits in their approach, is the way the world is seen through the eyes of the wolves, with smell and sound manifesting as ethereal, colored light.
As historical revisionism, “Wolfwalkers” takes its antagonist, Lord Protector Cromwell (Simon McBurney)—referred here simply as Lord Protector—from reality. A wicked character credited with the eradication of wolves from the island nation, Cromwell represents England’s ruthless cultural colonization of Ireland. The subtext of his devotion to savagely kill the animals is the battle between the pagan practices of the natives and the Christians beliefs the invaders want to enforce.
Saving the wolves, the wilderness that Cromwell despises, means preserving those ancestral legends, language, and identity. In a way, that’s exactly what everyone involved in Moore’s films has done with their work, bringing back to life what was once fading away or that was unknown to the rest of the world so it can never go extinct. Collins even throws in a short Irish-language phrase, perhaps as a reminder that it hasn’t entirely disappeared.
Leading up to the movie’s climax, the high-stakes narrative builds up with exhilarating intensity and believable danger. With the grandeur of Shakespearian text adapted to a fantastical and family-friendly realm, the creators are not afraid to veer into darkness just enough to maintain a tense mood and reinforce the story’s poignancy. An instance where Robyn stands fearless with her hair blowing in the wind as she defiantly demands her father refrain from committing an act of cruelty or one riding a massive wolf through the gates of town echoing Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke,” vibrate with unforgettable heroism.
This is the product of a sublime dedication to artistry as it serves storytelling. With their alchemist touch, the folks at Cartoon Saloon turn ancient fables into heart-pounding adventures with humanistic relevance. Not only is “Wolfwalkers” easily the best animated film of the year, but a stirring masterwork, as stunningly gorgeous as it’s philosophically profound. No matter what comes next, Moore and company will forever be among the best artists ever to have graced the medium. [A+]