Toronto Review: Wolfwalkers
With computer animation steadily becoming the norm over the past few decades, each new hand-drawn film starts to feel like a small miracle. Cartoon Saloon, the Irish animation house responsible for The Secret of Kells and The Breadwinner, is carving out a place alongside the Studio Ghiblis of the animation world with an emphasis on creativity and unique visual style. Cartoon Saloon’s latest, Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s Wolfwalkers, continues their winning streak with a lovely film that puts a fresh spin on familiar adolescent fantasy tropes in a way that is reminiscent of the Disney Renaissance in all the best ways.
Set during the mid-1600s Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, Wolfwalkers follows young Robyn Goodfellowe, a precocious English girl eager to help her father — a member of Cromwell’s army — hunt down wolves in the forests of Ireland. It should come as no surprise that these wolves aren’t your typical woodland creatures; they instead belong to a mystical pack led by mother and daughter “wolfwalkers” — essentially benevolent werewolves. As Robyn struggles against the injustices she sees and her father’s desire to keep her safe, she’s drawn into a friendship with the younger wolfwalker and eventually has to decide where her loyalties lie.
The story is simple enough, but elevated through the sheer amount of care put into telling it. The animation style is unlike almost anything else out there — not just hand drawn, but sketchy in a way that makes it feel alive, with stray marks and initial outlines intentionally placed to give the sense that the film is being drawn as you watch, breathed into existence in real time. Action sequences are particularly clever — both dynamic and stylish — and the film makes excellent use of split screen and the ability to craft distinct styles for the two worlds inhabited by the protagonist. The score by Bruno Coulais is simply lovely, and the voice acting is sturdy, led by young talent in Honor Kneafsey and Eva Whittaker while Sean Bean and Simon McBurney as Robyn’s father and Oliver Cromwell, respectively, lend some veteran gravitas to the proceedings.
The decision to have Cromwell — obviously a real historical figure — as not only a character but a primary antagonist is initially somewhat jarring, but ultimately pays off as the filmmakers work to imbue fantasy with stakes that go beyond the cookie-cutter villainy often seen in children’s movies. Yes, this is a children’s movie, but kids are smart and capable and can learn a lot from their media. Wolfwalkers sparks a conversation about historical intolerance without being preachy, and when combined with its remarkable visual storytelling, is easy to recommend to youth and adult alike.