2020, PG, 103 min. Directed by Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart. Voices by Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney, Tommy Tiernan, Maria Doyle Kennedy.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 13, 2020
To belong. That's the theme at the heart of Wolfwalkers, the extraordinary third film in Tomm Moore's loose trilogy of tales based on aspects of Irish folklore. Yet the heroine is from the other side of the Irish Sea. Robyn Goodfellowe (voiced by Kneafsey) is aptly named, a tip o' the hat to the helpful if willful spirit of English folklore, but she's a long way from her Yorkshire home. That location is never explicitly stated, but implicit in her accent and reinforced by Sean Bean as her father, Bill, a widowed English hunter brought to Ireland by the Lord Protector (McBurney). That would be Eire's old nemesis, Oliver Cromwell (although that cursed name is never spoken), who rules with a dictatorial iron fist and has charged Bill Goodfellowe with ridding the forest of wolves so it can be tamed as farmland.
Yet Robyn's new and only friend has other plans. Mebh (Whittaker) is a wolfwalker. Not a werewolf, with all the curse that implies, but one who leaves their sleeping human form behind at night to run with the wolves. It is a glorious existence, not a netherworld but one of different lights and shadows. The downside is that if body and spirit are separated, the sleeper cannot awaken, and Mebh's mammy is missing, while the pack is menaced more than ever by hunters like Robyn's father.
Following on from The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, Wolfwalkers is the third and – believe it – pinnacle of animation studio Cartoon Saloon and Moore's work. Every frame looks completely unique because Moore and first-time co-director Ross Stewart create a spectrum of shape and color. At one extreme there are the rigid lines and deep hues of dictatorship: The Lord Protector himself looks like he was assembled like stained glass, a dictator who stands in sin with Disney's Judge Claude Frollo and Archibald Snatcher in Laika's The Boxtrolls as a depiction of authoritarian malice. That design ethos is why the first sight of Robyn sees her constrained under the geometric arch of her hood. At the other is the wolf world, a pastel chalk flow of curves and swoops, perpetually in motion. Yet the world is not binary, never simply one or the other, but a continuum with aspects of both in so many characters. Nor do the artists simply modernize a vision of ancient Celtic art for the designs, instead integrating elements of the Arts and Crafts Movement that were influenced by historic Irish art. William Morris spills through as much as Hanna-Barbera, and there is plenty of comedy woven in to the dramatic fabric. It's Moore's most universally accessible story, and parents worried about this being just some cute fairytale (hah! like that's never enough for a story); it's also a heartwarming story of family and friendship, a family-friendly examination of the horror of repression, a bracing adventure about two girls finding themselves, and a stealth art history lesson.
So many strands, and when the full tapestry is unfurled, its captivating, beautiful, thrilling, and entrancing patterns are revealed. Wolfwalkers stands proud as a new classic.
Wolfwalkers is in theaters now from GKids, and romps on to Apple TV+ on Dec. 11.