In 2009, Cartoon Saloon, an Irish animation studio founded a decade earlier, released their first feature film, The Secret of Kells. With its bold animation style and commitment to old school techniques, at the time fast falling out of favor with American animation studios (Disney’s last traditionally animated movie, Winnie the Pooh, was released in 2011), The Secret of Kells ushered in an exciting new animation studio, one that wasn’t afraid of cultural specificity or aesthetic experimentation. With Wolfwalkers, the studio’s newest film, they seem to be both closing a chapter (completing a loose Celtic trilogy that began with Kells and continued with Song of the Sea) and opening a new one – where bolder stylistic flourishes exist alongside even more emotional storytelling. It’s the time of animated feature, so assuredly told and excitingly executed, that feels like a brand new classic.
Wolfwalkers (which will be released by Apple TV+ later this year) opens with a villager getting attacked in the forest, at which point a young girl, looking like a Lil’ Wildling from Game of Thrones, comes out of the brush and magically heals him. Our main story picks up a little while later. Robin Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) and her father Bill (Sean Bean) have moved to a dusty Irish town from England. He’s a hunter and has been hired to get rid of the wolves in the surrounding woodland; she is precocious and longs for the freedom of her old life. While following her father into the woods one day, she is attacked by wolves and accidentally fires an arrow into the wing of her pet hawk, Merlin. Later, she returns to the woods and begins a friendship with Mebh (Eva Whittaker), the young girl from the opening, who is revealed to be a Wolfwalker, someone who can leave their body and assume the form of a wolf when they’re asleep. It turns out Mebh’s mother, Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy) has been asleep for a long time but her wolf form has never returned. The young girls vow to find – and free – Mebh’s mother, all while avoiding her father and the town’s heavy, the god-fearing, wolf-hating Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney).
Nestled within Wolfwalkers is a nifty twist, which is that since Robin was bitten by Mebh in wolf form, she becomes a wolfwalker herself. It’s a wonderful choice and does much to help complicate the narrative, as she is now causing her father grief and bringing even more pressure down on the wolves in the surrounding forest. And since this isn’t like every other family fantasy movie, the “rules” of the magic aren’t immediately explained (and then followed); Robin has to figure them out herself. She becomes the audience surrogate as she attempts to understand what turning into a wolf every night means and how she can harness her newfound powers. (This continues well into the film; she doesn’t become savvy to the magic right away. It’s insanely delightful.) And while the story may share superficial similarities to movies like Brave and Brother Bear, where selfish characters are transformed into animals so they can learn a lesson, Wolfwalkers is different in its dedication to not sugarcoating its occasionally difficult storyline. There aren’t any pat platitudes here; magic and the lessons learned from that lesson are hard fought and occasionally heartbreaking.
Oh, and the animation is absolutely jaw-dropping.
To be sure Cartoon Saloon films have a certain look, with an easily readable graphic quality that points to its emphasis on traditional animation techniques and culturally specific designs. And Wolfwalkers is, far and way, their most gorgeous movie yet. Nearly every sequence has something to marvel at. Occasionally the screen is split up into thirds, looking like some kind of ancient tapestry; other times the frame becomes thinner, going super-widescreen, with jagged lines at the top and bottom, like that tapestry has been torn. There’s a looseness to the animation, as well, that makes the characters even more expressive and brings attention to the unparalleled artistry and technical proficiency it took to bring them to life. Oftentimes the character will be enhanced by the filmmakers leaving in the clean-up line on the images. This can either give the outlines of the characters a “hairiness” reminiscent of the Xerography process that Disney pioneered in the 1960s (and can be seen in films like One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Jungle Book). Other times it takes on a much wilder, more unpredictable presence, like showing the actual shapes that make up the wolves or humans – the balls that form the hips and head shapes. That wildness is important since it is an extension of the movie’s themes of the importance of individuality and of the unchecked, over-grown world just beyond the walls of society. And this is without even talking about the “wolf-vision” sequences, that put you in the hyper-sensitive headspace of the wolves and were created using a combination of 3D and 2D techniques.
And while you can occasionally feel the movie’s influences beyond the folk art and mythology that inspired its storytelling; everything from Princess Mononoke and The Tale of Princess Kaguya to the work of Genndy Tartakovsky on Samurai Jack seems to have inspired the look of the movie. But Wolfwalkers never feels derivative; it always feels fresh and unexpected. Truly, you’ve never seen or felt an animated movie that looks and feels like Wolfwalkers.
Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart understand that if the movie were merely eye-popping, it wouldn’t matter much. And thankfully they have woven a deeply emotional story that fits somewhere between the friendship-between-a-human-and-a-non-human dynamic of something like The Iron Giant or Lilo & Stitch, with a grand adventure about the dangers of conformity and governmental overreach (with a lovely environmental message about the importance of conservatism nestled in there along the way). Part of what makes the movie hit so hard is the filmmakers’ fearlessness to really go there (the falcon getting shot by an arrow before the plot really kicks in should have probably been a good sign); there is actual danger and there are very scary stakes. The climactic battle had me holding my breath because the fate of one of the main characters hung in the balance in a way that I wasn’t sure was going to resolve happily. When was the last time you thought that during a mainstream animated feature? Wolfwalkers is a movie that harkens back to the golden age of Disney animation, in which chances were taken both artistically and storytelling-wise and where a little bit of scariness enhanced the drama exponentially. This might not be the biggest animated movie of the year, but it’s certainly one of the most essential. It really does feel, even as you’re watching it, like you’ve uncovered a beloved treasure. It’s that good.
Wolfwalkers will premiere in theaters and on Apple TV+ later this year.