Wolfwalkers is an emotional and elegantly animated adventure, packed with vivacious visuals and lovely life lessons for the whole family.
Cartoon Saloon, the Irish animation studio behind Academy Award nominees The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner, is well-known for fashioning adoringly acclaimed animated features full of stirring storytelling and riveting resonance, so it’s certainly saying something that Apple TV+’s Wolfwalkers may very well be their most exhilarating and enjoyable epic to date. Though this eco-friendly fable shares story strands with films such as Avatar, Brave, and Princess Mononoke, screenwriter Will Collins (Song of the Sea, Angela’s Christmas) conveys a creative chronicle courtesy of directors Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea) and Ross Stewart with wit and wonder, allowing this familiar fantasy to stand on its own and allure audiences all the same. With markedly mature musings, a dynamic sense of danger, and a compelling emotional core, Wolfwalkers is able to be the rare animated film that appeals to both adults and kids, offering opulent reasons for everyone to be engaged in its staggering spectacle.
Wolfwalkers follows a young apprentice wolf hunter named Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey, of A Christmas Prince and The Bookshop) who wishes to work alongside her father Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean, of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and HBO’s Game of Thrones) in his quest to rid the Irish wildlife of its last remaining wolf pack at the behest of the English’s execrable Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney, of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 and The Conjuring 2). Bill, who has become quite an over-protective patriarch ever since the loss of his beloved wife, strives to keep Robyn safe, but her adventurous spirit is too much for him suppress. As such, when Robyn surreptitiously follows her father on a hunt one day, her whole world is upended after she comes face to face with the wolf heathens she’s been taught to hate her entire life.
For starters, young Robyn receives evidence of the existence of “wolfwalkers” – human beings who can shape-shift into wolves in their sleep and “walk” amongst the animals freely – when meeting with the mysterious and manic Mebh (Eva Whittaker, of The Girl at the End of the Garden), who is seeking out her mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy, of Sing Street and The Conjuring 2) after she left the forest as a wolf in search of new shelter and never returned. Though the two are initially adversaries, a fruitful friendship begins to form, causing Robyn to reconsider all she’s ever known and contemplate her place in the conflict between humans and wolves.
At the start of the film, Wolfwalkers is most suddenly striking for its awe-inspiring animation and impressively immersive imagery, which perfectly places audiences in this compelling Celtic climate while sustaining a sweet-natured and stylistic “storybook” aesthetic. Though the film retains the affable aura of most modern-day animated films, it also isn’t afraid to explore edgier material as well, presenting pulse-pounding pursuits through the fearsome forest and showcasing several suspenseful skirmishes between the English warriors and their wolf opponents that are all appropriately anxiety-inducing and deftly drawn.
Editors Richie Cody (The Breadwinner), Darren Holmes (Ratatouille, How to Train Your Dragon), and Darragh Byrne (Song of the Sea) keep the plot moving at a brisk pace, and despite a slight lull in the second act (that perhaps signals that this 100-minute long feature could’ve been slimmed down a tad), the three brilliantly balance both the heightened action and the heart-tugging drama. It additionally helps that their frenetic flourishes often make the story’s most stunning setpieces feel like scenes ripped from the pages of a chaotic and colorful comic book, weaving energy with emotion quite effectively.
Collins’ script is just as absorbing as the film’s animation, captivating audiences with Robyn’s character arc and easily earning our empathetic engagement. Sure, we’ve seen scenarios like this before – in which an individual must abandon archaic worldviews and oppose an oppressive community when confronted with the truth about a mistakenly maligned enemy – but Collins incorporates enough innovative elements to keep this fable feeling fresh. When not in the woods and instead crossing through her home city of Kilkenny, Robyn herself faces painful prejudice from the English as a result of her Irish heritage; therefore, when making peace with Mebh, the two connect over their correlative brushes with bias and bigotry. Despite their differing upbringings, the relationship and rapport between Robyn and Mebh holds hope that there is far more than unites us than divides us, and that is a message that society sorely needs today.
From top to bottom, the voice cast of Wolfwalkers is enormously enchanting, with no actor phoning in their performance by any means. Kneafsey channels Robyn’s hardheadedness and humanity in equal measure, displaying an admirably adult attitude while inhabiting the character’s innocence as well. Whittaker is a wild and whimsical delight, conferring cheer and comedy to the epic in its entirety, but she proves more than capable of handling the more harrowing points of the plot too. Bean is a reliably stoic – but sincere – presence, matching his mighty masculinity with a proportionately powerful patience. And, of course McBurney is a ferocious foil for our hearty heroines, manifesting enough malevolence and menace in his voice work to overcome the otherwise one-dimensionality of his role.
One would also be remiss not to give a shoutout to the stimulating score served up by composer Bruno Coulais (Coraline, Song of the Sea), band Kíla (The Secret of Kells), and singer AURORA (Frozen II), which contributes considerably to cultivating the Celtic setting of the story and following the overall feeling of the film from the first frame to the last. Simply put, this majestic music is as necessary to materializing the mood of the movie as Moore and Stewart’s audacious animation.
In a genre crowded with crowd-pleasing and comical pictures from Pixar, DreamWorks, and Illumination Entertainment, Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers offers families a more mature odyssey that nevertheless sustains its status as engaging and entrancing all-ages entertainment. With a profound plot, commoving characters, and visually arresting animation, Wolfwalkers ultimately unfurls a noteworthy and nourishing narrative that is sure to amaze and affect audiences around the world when it debuts on Apple TV+ this October.
Wolfwalkers was screened on the BFI Player as part of the BFI London Film Festival on October 10, 2020. The film landed globally on Apple TV+ on December 11.