The power of a line is amazing. Lines on maps have started (and ended) wars and have divided people. Lines of dialogue or prose have inspired and entertained people for centuries. In art, lines can tell a story, express emotions, capture the beauty of a moment, and much more. Wolfwalkers, the latest film from Cartoon Saloon, the Irish animation studio, brilliantly uses a plethora of lines to tell a timeless story that speaks both to young and old in visually enchanting ways. The studio brought us The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner combines folklore, Irish history, and stunning animation to deliver a spellbinding animated fantasy.
Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, the film takes place in 17th-Century Kilkenny, Ireland. It tells the story of a determined, young girl named Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) who lives alone with her father Bill (Sean Bean) and falcon Merlin behind the city’s fortified walls. Although her father would prefer she stay safe at home doing chores, she aspires to be a hunter just like him. She’d rather practice her crossbow skills than sweeping the floors.
The people of her city are under the tyrannical thumb of Lord Protector (Simon McBurney), an nefarious, oppressive man. His goal is to tame the wolves, the land, and the people he governs all in the name of “the Lord’s will.” His reckless, manipulation and fear-mongering about the unknown has become quite prevalent as of late. Even the city’s children demonize the animal, singing songs, and playing games about hunting the animal.
Disobeying the pleas of her father, Robyn heads out into the forest where she meets Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a feisty, wild-haired girl whose endless enthusiasm for life and the forest cannot be contained. She lives there alone with her mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy). They are the last two remaining wolfwalkers, mythical people who possess the ability to heal wounds, command other wolves, and, most incredibly, can transform themselves into wolves. As their human body sleeps, their wolf form roams the earth.
The two become quick friends as children often do. They learn about each other’s differences, casting aside the fear and misinformation that divides them. After Mebh accidentally bites Robyn, she too acquires the magical powers of wolfwalker. She becomes one of the beasts the people of her town, including her father, have been conditioned to hate and fear.
Moore and Stewart craft a richly imaginative tale revealing its surprising depth as it unfolds. The themes are plentiful but balanced, weaved together with skilled storytelling that is never heavy-handed or cumbersome. Even while covering numerous timely themes it avoids the pitfall of being preachy or talking down to the audience. An environmental message about species extinction is entwined with reminders about how important it is to walk in other’s shoes and look beyond our own immediate needs. Empathy, compassion, and curiosity over fear and destruction.
Some of these will go over the heads of the younger audiences while planting seeds which will hopefully continue to grown and flourish as they do. But, this is definitely not a film only for children. While its tone can be light and whimsical at times, it also strikes some dark notes. Especially Lord Protector, who will certainly remind alert some viewers of current leaders, who will rename nameless, who uses fear to control their followers.
The father/daughter relationship between Robyn and her father is quite endearing and will definitely tug some parental heartstrings, while young girls will embrace the female empowerment message. Bill is afraid to let Robyn grow up, afraid he will lose her like her mother. Will Collins‘ script captures the feel of those parental instincts to protect our kids from the dangers of the world, even while their animal instincts drive them to explore it. The film moved me as it unexpectedly captured those feelings I often feel as a parent of two young ladies myself.
The story is just as effectively told through the lines of dialogue as it is with the drawn lines delivered on screen. The art direction is marvelously inventive, combining classic Celtic imagery and captivating animation techniques. The townies, including Robyn, have a woodblock style to them; geometrical with thicker hardened angles and lines, presented with a rather flat look. Everything about the city feels restrictive and captive – tall metal gates, barrier walls, stockades, and even window muntins cast cage-like shadows on Robyn as she sleeps.
Once Robyn enters the forest the film unleashes the full magic of its visuals. She and her surrounding environment transform. The lines used to construct Robyn is no longer of the well-defined hard edges of the other townies. The restrictiveelements of the city gone, replaced with lush swirling colors, and soft, flowing, organic, expressive lines. The beauty of nature is on full display. The animators pack each frame with an array of gorgeous, textured watercolor hues. While the 2D hand-drawn approach may be seen by some as old-fashioned it actually breathes more life and humanity into the film than the majority of CG content out there
Even though each frame is bursting with detail it never crosses over into the visual noise you find in many contemporary animated films. In fact, on second viewing, I found myself pausing the film captivated by the minute details of how deeply personal it all feels. From the subtle movement of Robyn’s hair as it flows in the wind to the bold, menacing energy of the climax, it remains beautiful even while hauntingly dark at times. Having studied animation, I recognize the passion behind the craft. Behind each and every penciled line or brushstroke is a decision made by an artist…a real person, not an algorithm. It adds something really special to the experience.
This is never more true than the entrancing scene giving the viewer a first-person point of view from the eyes of Robyn as a wolf. Her heightened senses are dash across the screen in an almost lyrical fashion. It is freeing and enchanting. A flowing display of kinetic energy truly puts you in the body of a wolf, free of all human world stresses. It captures a return to childhood days when we could run faster, jump higher, and care less. Aurora’s ethereal ‘Running with the Wolves’ adds to the spell as does the moving score of composer Bruno Coulais (Coraline) throughout.
Wolfwalkers has so much to take in it will certainly age well with repeat viewings. It is a heartwarming classic. The Irish culture, unforgettable visuals, spirited voice work, and the engrossing story all cast an alluring spell. The film deserves to be a frontrunner for Best Animated Feature. In a time where it is not recommended to travel beyond the confines of our homes, Moore, Stewart, and Cartoon Saloon transport us to a beguiling new world. One that you may never want to leave.
Wolfwalkers is now in theaters and will stream exclusively on Apple TV+ on December 11. Watch our interview with the directors below for more spoiler-free insight into the making of the film.