For fans of Irish mythology, a new Cartoon Saloon movie is an event. While Wolfwalkers doesn’t quite measure up to the high benchmark set by the studio’s earlier animated feature, Song of the Sea, it’s still an attractive picture and more evidence that Cartoon Saloon should be as big a household name as Pixar.
Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) is new to Ireland. Her father (Sean Bean) is in charge of getting rid of the wolves from the forest nearby. While Robyn is used to helping him hunt, she hasn’t been allowed to since they moved. It’s one of the rules set by the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney): no children allowed outside the town walls, and her father is dead set on obeying. It follows, then, that when the Lord Protector tells him Robyn should be working as a scullery maid, her dad agrees, even though it’s the last thing Robyn wants to do.
So, Robyn follows her dad into the forest instead and ends up meeting Mebh (Eva Whittaker) there. Mebh and her mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy) are Wolfwalkers. That means they turn into wolves when they’re asleep and return to their human bodies when they’re awake. This sets Wolfwalker mythology apart from werewolf mythology because there’s no transformation sequence. It’s more like an out of body experience, or ghosts, if ghosts were alive and could take the form of wolves when they were haunting.
It’s funny how your brain goes back to the history you know, though, because despite the accents and the clear text at the beginning of this movie that set it in Kilkenny, and Robyn’s father bringing up his concerns about being English all the time, I found myself forgetting I was watching an Irish movie. Blame it on the bonnets or the fact that the Lord Protector looks a lot like Governor Ratcliffe from Disney’s Pocahontas, but my brain kept thinking “pilgrims” instead, and, while Wolfwalkers isn’t a tragedy, it also has that Romeo and Juliet, torn-between-two-houses storyline. that Pocahontas had.
What Wolfwalkers does boast is some great characterizations. While Robyn’s dad is guilty of not listening to his daughter, his motives aren’t simply that’s he’s strict or old-fashioned, and he’s never painted out as a villain, even though his actions are often misguided. Character is also reflected in the animation. Since Mebh was raised by wolves you often see her adopting their mannerisms and she has wolf features around the nose.
A lot of the animation in Wolfwalkers is inspired by Celtic art. While the stillness must be intentional, it can also feel subconscious to see all these forest backdrops, and none of the trees moving in the breeze. That might be why the scenes set in the castle work better and are some of the most visually interesting in the movie – they take place indoors – and it’s a shame there aren’t more of them, or at least a few more triptychs.
Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, with a screenplay by Will Collins, Wolfwalkers begins streaming on Apple TV+ starting December 11th.