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Wolfwalkers (2020)

 

To say that Wolfwalkers, the latest film from Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon and director Tomm Moore arrives with a weight of expectations would be putting it mildly. Their first three features, from 2008's The Secret Of Kells to 2017's The Breadwinner screened to a rapturous audience and critical acclaim, winning numerous awards and nominations- including among them three Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature. In particular, it is following their second, Song Of The Sea (2014), Moore's solo directorial debut that earned comparisons with Miyazaki and marked the director as one of the foremost talents working in animation today. So, no pressure then.

Wolfwakers is produced by Cartoon Saloon in association with Luxemburg's Mélusine Pictures. It was acquired by Apple for distribution on its new Apple TV+ streaming service, but will first be screened theatrically in Ireland and the United Kingdom via WildCard Distribution and in the United States by GKIDS Films. Due to Pandemic restrictions, the film received its World Premiere in a virtual format at Toronto International Film Festival and its European premiere at the BFI London Film Festival.

The film is directed by Moore and Ross Stewart (art director on The Secret Of Kells), with Mark Mullery acting as assistant director. The screenplay was written by Will Collins. The voice cast includes Sean Bean, Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker and Simon McBurney.


The story is set in Killkenny, Ireland in the fifteenth century, at a time when the town was occupied by English forces under the Lord Protector (never explicitly named, but to people down with their English/Irish history, understood to be based on Oliver Cromwell). Young English girl Robyn (Kneafsey) comes to Ireland with her father Bill (Bean), who has been sent to the town to help wipe out the last remaining pack of Wolves. But after Robyn runs into trouble with the pack, she encounters Meabh (pronounced Mave) a young girl who is revealed to be a legendary Wolfwalker, a tribe who are able to take on the form of wolves by night. The friendship between the two girls is set to change both of their lives more than they could ever have imagined.

After Nora Twomey's The Breadwinner showed that the studio could just as capably tell stories outside their comfort zone, it's back to more familiar territory for Cartoon Saloon- quite literally, as Kilkenny is where they are based. The film is concluding what has become to be known as the studio's Irish folklore trilogy, started with Kells and continuing with Song Of The Sea. While Wolfwalkers is set quite a while later than the period covered in Secret Of Kells, it has one foot in a much earlier time- Ireland's pre-Christian pagan past. This blend of history and the fantastical is something that is commonplace in Asian storytelling- it's often seen in films from Japan or China- but is less common to see in the West. It also depicts a historical period not often seen on screen. Even in the UK, there are very few films or series set in the English Civil War or Commonwealth period, let alone those made in Ireland.

As a trilogy-capper, it really does feel as if it is something of a culmination. It builds on everything they have learned from the making of their past films and it just feels that much bigger. Animated films take a long time to make, and this film's history goes back a long way, its genesis reportedly coming from an idea that Moore and Stewart discussed early in the production of Song. But it is hard to imagen them making this film earlier in their career.

 

The most visible way this film is an evolution from their past films is in the animation itself. The film's look is consistent with what has become known at Cartoon Saloon's house style. The characters have the same distinctive look, and the film is full of their trademark beautifully composed shots. Yet it's also notably distinct in style from their past films. They have always been hand-drawn of course (using digital technology) but they've also- in retrospect- had a rather clean, picture book finish. Here the style is that much more organic in appearance, more sketchy and less finished. It makes it look and feel more hand-drawn, more traditional. The animation varies based on what is needed for any given sequence. It can be more polished or more sketchy to add extra vibrancy for action or emotionally heavy scenes. There are times when you can literally see the pencil lines underneath. Just as with visible thumbprints in Aardman's beloved stop-motion films, it doesn't make it feel unfinished or come across as an animation mistake- it adds to the experience and makes the human element feel more present. It's a long way from the cold, clinical feel that can be associated with CG.

It's playful with style, too. It makes use of a variety of techniques such as split-screen or varying aspect ratio to add more to certain scenes. It occasionally uses techniques that make it seem more like a comic book or even a storyboard come to life. It revels in its hand-made nature. At the same time, it is able to make full use of the digital tools available to the animator of today, and there are sequences that would not be possible without this technology. 


 This is most obviously true in the case of the first-person shots and sequences scattered throughout the film. The filmmakers developed a technique they dubbed 'Wolfvision' to depict some truly beautiful sequences through the Wolfwalkers eyes. Elsewhere, on very rare occasions, there are shots where the use of CG sticks out a little, but its never too distracting. It's Cartoon Saloon's best looking film so far.

But there is so much more to this film than its beautiful animation. Robyn makes for a wonderful lead. As a child brought to a foreign land and surrounded by the intimidating force of the army and locals, she instantly draws our empathy. But she's a plucky young thing, resisting the expectation that women and girls must stay in their place, and longing to follow her father on the hunt. It's all anchored by a wonderful performance by Kneafsy, who brings the character to life with a skill that belies her age. Her northern accent is occasionally a little bit wobbly but it's entirely forgivable.

Robyn's father is also a skillfully drawn character, a noble man who is devoted to doing whatever that must be done to protect his daughter. Bean is of course, excellent and brings real pathos to the role. There's a sadness behind him, as it is suggested that Robyn's mother is no longer with us. The fact that its never spelt out or made explicit is an example of the film's subtle storytelling, that is so much less in-your-face than you would find in Hollywood Studio animation.

On the other side,wild-child Meabh is such a flame-haired ball of child-like energy and mischief that it's impossible not to fall in love with her, both in her human and wolf forms. The unlikely friendship that forms between the two girls is the very heart of the film. Their freindship, complete with playful sibling-like banter feels very real and their chemistry is believable. Originally Robyn was going to be a boy called Robin, but the decision was made that the character worked better as a girl. This was the right decision as it makes for a different dynamic.  It makes the film stand out a bit too, as even all these years after Frozen, central relationships between female characters are still all too rare in western feature animation.

Their friendship also ties to one of the film's key themes. As these two are from such different worlds but are still able to form such a deep bond, it shows that there is much more that we have in common than what divides us. 

The Studio Ghibli comparisons could seem lazy and are in danger of becoming tiresome, but Wolfwalkers definitely has some echoes of Hayao Miyazaki masterpiece Princess Mononoke. Similarly, that film depicted two protagonists caught up in the battle between man and nature and depicted sympathetic characters on both sides. Never painting things in terms of black and white.


 

The love of nature and the appreciation of the beauty that surrounds us is another key theme throughout Tomm Moore's work. It's more prominent in Wolfwalkers than any of his earlier films, and it can definitely be read as an eco-fable. The destruction of the woods and the attempts by the Lord Protector to wipe out the wolves can easily be seen as a parallel with modern-day environmental issues. 

The film is clearly in love with the natural world, from the opening sequence where badgers and stags wander a beautiful landscape. It's emphasised with the contrast between the imposing sight of the town and castle and the wilds of the forest. The straight lines and artificiality of man-made buildings are contrasted with the lush greens and natural colours of the forest, which is rendered in a much looser, more natural style.

This is the studio's first film with this number of animal characters. They're brought to life in a way that only animation can- with a mix of authentic animal movement and more human-like characteristics. This is most true in terms of the Wolfwalkers, whose wolf-forms have much more character than the rest of the pack.  You'll fall in love not only the wolves but also Robyns' faithful pet falcon Merlin and even the hapless sheep.

Moore and Stewart nimbly navigate a number of differing tones. Moving from gleefully cartoony one minute to dramatic and melancholy the next. It's able to depict slapstick comedy and moving human moments with the same skill. Other sequences revel in a sense of wonder: whether it's for the natural or the supernatural. The scene where Robyn first discovers her wolf powers and runs with Meabh and the pack is genuinely joyful. Elsewhere, it also moves into new territory for Cartoon Saloon with some sequences designed to scare. Before we truly meet Meabh, the wolves are depicted as a shadowy threat, dark gnashing shapes with glowing eyes and sharp teeth. The sequence when Robyn ventures into the woods alone for the first time is genuinely creepy. The film has such creepy moments peppered throughout, and they're very well done. This does mean it could be a little intense for very young (or sensitive) children.


Something else the Studio hasn't really done before but is required here is action set-pieces. There are several exciting sequences where they prove just as capable at that as they are at anything else. From Robyn's desperate escape from the town in wolf form to the truly exhilarating action-packed climax. The latter feels like probably the most ambitious sequence the studio has yet produced, which could rival the denouement of anything Disney has produced.

To fully complete the package, Moore bought back his musical collaborators from Song of The Sea, composer Bruno Coulais and band Kila, ensuring the film sounds as good as it looks. Coulais has produced another beautiful score. While music doesn't play quite as big a role as in their previous project, Wolfwalkers still has many key sequences that are enhanced by a memorable soundtrack.

It's a shame that many will be denied the chance to see it on the big screen due to the pandemic, as that would have been quite something to see. If you do get the chance to see it in a cinema (and feel safe to do so) be sure not to miss it! Wolfwalkers is a towering achievement, excelling in every department. This is a love-letter to 2D animation and a testament to just what can be done in the medium. Based on this evidence hand-drawn animation is far from dead: in fact, it's best years may be yet to come.


 FORMAT: MOVIE  AVAILABLE ON: STREAMING/CINEMA LIMITED RELEASE  FROM: APPLE [Dec 11]/ GKIDS [Nov 13] / WILDCARD [Oct 30] RATING: PG  RUNNING TIME: 1HR 40 mins


IN A NUTSHELL:  A Gorgeously animated and soulfully told fable from some of animation's finest storytellers. An instant classic

★★★★★





**Screener Provided by WildCard, Screened at LFF**