Vassilis Kroustallis reviews the latest Cartoon Saloon animation feature Wolfwalkers by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart.
Cartoon Saloon (along with its co-partners) has set a high bar for family-friendy independent animation features; most immediately recognizable by their refusal to bow to pop culture aesthetics, and drawing from rich pictorial sources and aesthetics, they have made Irish folklore an almost household name for animation cinephiles.
In their latest Wolfwalkers (co-produced by Mélusine Productions), Tomm Moore, director of the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014) is here co-directing with Ross Stewart another parable of children caught up between faulty reasoning and more earnest (if mysterious) folk wisdom.
11-year-old Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) is a tomboy and a direct descendant of Brendan (The Secret of Kells) and Ben (Song of the Sea) in terms of her rebellious nature. Designed like her face armed with a triangular cap is ready to explode, she's a girl who prefers hunting instead of 'women's chores'. Her father, the hunter-soldier Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) is the Englishman who comes to Kilkenny, Ireland during the Cromwell rule; he is under the command of the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) and he has the duty to destroy the native and intimidating wolf packs in the forest, which threaten to destroy the new order in town.
Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart and the film's screenwriter Will Collins flirt for a while with the idea of an Irish Merida, but fortunately their Robyn is less fierce, and perhaps more compassionate as a character than her Pixar equivalent. What matters, furthermore, is that Robyn won't share the dramatic terrain all by herself. 4 characters are in the business of keeping all the narrative knots together; apart from the two English pair of father and daughter, Robyn is soon to meet the wolfwalker (werewolf) girl Mebh (deliciously voiced by Eva Whittaker) and her own mother -in a sleeping state.
The first part of the film details, in a manner familiar to those who have watched Tomm Moore's two previous films (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea), both the chance encounter of the two girls in a forest -full of wonders- and sets the main issue doubled. Wolfs may be in danger by reason of an oppressive, foreign regime -but a certain wolf, Mebh's mother, might be in a caged environment herself. Her fate will determine the fate of all other characters.
Wolfwalkers emerges in its first half as an immersive journey to a pagan, folklore world, and here's a testament of how art direction in 2D animation (Ross Stewart, Tomm Moore, Maria Pareja) can guide your look to the right spot. Meandering tree branches, the most meticulous use of color shades makes you feel and be in the forest -without the need for VR goggles. Fortunately, it moves from this space rather quickly as well; engrossing as all this is, it slows down the plot untill the other characters come to the fore.
Wolfwalkers works best not as a friendship story, but rather as an ensemble; that's why the triangular-shaped, dreary town acquires so much significance in the second half. Art direction may even be better in the town segment, in a film which cares for its visual details as any. This is the part where you actually feel the vibes of the angry crowd in unison, the prejudice rising in, and the changes of Robyn herself -who now has to grow up from her father's daughter to being an independent character.
Being mostly a family-friendly film, Wolfwalkers still features at least two intensely dramatic scenes, with all major characters on stage -with the visual flair that the Mordor battles would get. In those scenes, editing works like a sharp knife to highlight each character's own trajectory, while the soundtrack (by Bruno Coulais) reaches its peak at those points. (The film's songs, written also by Kila, are fine, but can't match the haunting quality of the previous films' offerings).
The contrast between paganism and religion, between freedom and repression is heavily but somehow repetitively featured here; even though the arch villain Lord Protector is set like an English version of Frollo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), he is mostly scary than villainous, and still utilitarian to the core. What makes Wolfwalkers tick is the two daughters, Robyn and Mebh, who independently need to stand on their own feet, and really try to get away from the family prejudice or simply reunite with a family member lost. The process is arduous, but also looks true enough.
There is less magic and folklore than Song of the Sea and more battles than The Secret of Kells in Wolfwalkers; functioning as a final part of an Irish trilogy, the film stands out as a really solid dramatic piece which follows its characters' trajectory without making them superheroes or freaks in the process. Its artistic canvas is top-notch; as a confrontation of individual freedom vs. political repression becomes slim, but gains a lot of traction by setting its characters against their own family cages.
- Wolfwalkers opens in selected US and Canadian theaters, starting Friday 13th November 2020. It will be available on AppleTV. The film premieres globally on Apple TV+ on Friday, December 11.