Wolfwalkers (2020) Review

A STUNNING AND BEAUTIFUL

ANIMATED FILM OF ARTISTRY INTEGRITY


 

While major animated studios such as Disney, Pixar, and Illumination Entertainment have dominated the cinematic limelight, with their animated features topping the charts at the worldwide box office and being fan favorites to many, some smaller studios have had their share in the spotlight; producing some of the finest and most imaginative cartoon tales for the ages. One such studio is Cartoon Saloon, a Irish animated film company that, while not boasting the profit making numbers of Pixar or of the long illustrious catalogue from Disney, have demonstrated some of the most finest pieces of animated storytelling. With three films under their belt, Cartoon Saloon has produced some amazing beautiful cartoon tales, including 2009’s The Secret of the Kells, 2014’s Song of the Sea, and 2017’s The Breadwinner; crafting imaginative stories of artistry and integrity, while blending surreal visions of fantasy lore and profound realities. Now, Cartoon Saloon, and directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, present the studio’s fourth animated film and the conclusion to their “Irish Folklore trilogy” saga with the release of Wolfwalkers. Does this latest film continue the endearing legacy from the studio or is it a “black mark” on their esteem record of animated features?

THE STORY


In 1650 Ireland, Bill Goodfellow (Sean Bean) has pledged his loyalty to the mighty Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney), acting as the official wolf catcher for the expanding realm of the English kingdom freshly established in Ireland. Bill is a widower, raising his young girl named Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) on his own, often unable to contain his daughter’s unbribed curiosity, especially exploring the world beyond the city gates. While Bill sets out to rid the area of hungry wolves in the nearby woodland forest, Robyn manages to have a close-encounter interaction with Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a child who’s also a wolfwalker, with her spirit transforming into a wolf as she sleeps, introduced to their healing powers and control over the local pack. Mebh remains alone, without her mother, Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy), who became a wolf one night and never returned home. Curious herself to the new human girl, Mebh finds a friend in Robyn, who’s excited by the life, but is soon aware of its increasing danger, with the Lord Protector refusing to rest until the wolves have been exterminated, with Bill caught in the middle of being dutiful to his lord and unknowingly hunting his daughter in the process.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


As many of you know, I am a huge fan of animated movies, which probably stems from my childhood years of watching cartoons (both episodic TV series and various Disney / non-Disney movies of the late 80s to mid-90s). Much like what I said above, while I’ve been fan of several of the big animated studio releases, the idea of smaller studios cartoon features are sometimes have a better quality in both storytelling and integrity, with studios like Laika, Aardman Animations, and Cartoon Saloons being prime examples. With Cartoon Saloon’s movies, I love how different the film’s animation looks, which creates an almost dreamy folklore style from cartoon age long forgotten. Plus, their stories are always quite profound; never shoving pop culture references or unnecessary gags that don’t work. I have seeing The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, but I haven’t had the chance to see The Breadwinner, which I do plan on seeing. In short, while larger animation studio will continue to produce feature films for the masses, studios like Cartoon Saloon and others prove that finer qualities of storytelling can be found in smaller scale productions (i.e., quality over quantity).

This brings me back to talking about Wolfwalkers, the fourth film from Cartoon Saloon and the third entry in their Irish Folklore trilogy. To be quite honest, I really didn’t hear much about this movie. Yes, that’s true! Despite my love for kid’s animated films, Wolfwalkers went “under my radar” for quite some time. As I said, Cartoon Saloon doesn’t have the same number of releases like Disney or Pixar has, so I wasn’t really “looking” for their next release, especially since the studio’s last film came out in 2017. Nevertheless, I did eventually hear about this movie at the beginning of November 2020, seeing the film’s movie trailer online, which I do have that I really liked and got me quite intrigued to se the movie. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic in effect, Cartoon Saloon released the movie in various parts, with some being theatrically (in international territories), while for me (in the United States) the film was sold off to premiere on Apple+ TV exclusively. Luckily, I know someone who has Apple+ TV, so I was finally able to check out Wolfwalkers after the holiday season of 2020. So….what did I think of it? Well, I really liked it. Despite a few minor problems, Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers is gorgeous and engaging animated film that encompasses the studio’s continuing ideas of creative integrity and standout storytelling in its animation and narrative. The movie may get overlooked by the masses, but its definitely one that’s worth checking out!

Wolfwalkers is directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart and the duo have been part of Cartoon Saloon for quite some time, with Moore directing past films from the studio such as The Secret of Kells and the Song of the Sea, while Stewart worked as art director for those movies respectfully. Thus, the combination efforts of both Moore and Stewart seems to bolster the effect that Wolfwalkers has and indeed both seeing to do that quite effectively mind. Personally, I think that Wolfwalkers is perhaps the best release of Cartoon Studio (that I’ve seeing). Collectively, Moore and Stewart make the film a culmination of its past two other “Irish Folklore” entries by capping the movie off in is trilogy fashion (i.e saving the best for last). Moore and Stewart also make sure to keep the movie moving at a steady pace; never breaking away for unnecessary filling or side-stories; always making the feature’s main focus upon the adventures of Robyn and Mebh. Additionally, much like the rest of Cartoon Saloon’s releases, Moore and Stewart keep up the studio’s integrity intact and never deviate into the more commonplace tropes and references that many animated films of late fall into. What do I mean? Well, Wolfwalkers feels like its own thing and never makes pop-culture references or out-of-place musical / dance numbers, or snappy catchphrase zingers. Overall, Moore and Stewart do an incredible job in shaping Wolfwalkers to be what it is; an animated film that breathtaking to watch, thought-provoking in its tale being told, and bountiful pallet of entertainment.

Moreover, Wolfwalkers likeability and poignant meaning also stems from the feature’s story, which is steeped in Irish culture and folklore as well as developing into universal themes. The script, which was penned by Moore and Stewart as well as Will Collins and Jericca Cleland, is rich with various motifs and nuances that harken back to the real world of English occupation in Ireland much like how The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea displayed. Naturally, the setting of Ireland in the movie is one that is rife with realism; presenting a nation that is torn between the opposing factions (i.e., Christianity vs. paganism or Irish Catholicism vs. English Protestantism or Celtic vs. English history) and gives the narrative of Wolfwalkers a palpable backdrop to spring off of and propel forward in its own story. Plus, the familiar thematic beats are quite poignant and complexed, including friendship, tolerance, and family, are beautifully rendered in the movie that, while maybe commonplace for children’s tales, are still handled rather well in the film’s script and overall execution in the movie. In addition, the film’s story takes spiritual narrative influences from other animated films such as 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon and 1997’s Princess Mononoke and, while some argue that its take story beats from those two projects (more on that below), it merely takes several similarities, especially considering the opposition of mankind vs. nature, the usage of fear and superstition for fearmongering, and the two individuals (from opposite worlds) becoming friends. Altogether, all of these storytelling elements help strengthen Wolfwalkers’s narrative; compounding the powerful effect that the film has on its viewers for artistry integrity.

Naturally, the animation style of Cartoon Saloon’s features is perhaps one of the best things that they have been known for; displaying colorful animation that almost seems quite different from the more commonplace usage of three-dimensional computer-generated visuals. There’s no doubt that Wolfwalkers continues that tradition from Cartoon Saloon; making it the best “looking” release. With the current roster of film having 3D visuals for its animation, it’s almost a breath of fresh air to see an animated project offer up something quite unique and different; choosing a more traditional 2D style. Moreover, the animation in Wolfwalkers, giving its Irish folklore roots and nuances, has more of a classic folklore storytelling style of animation, which makes it even that more impressive to visual see; almost as if the film’s story is being drummed up from an old legend of some kind (if you know what I mean). Thus, what’s presented is absolutely stunning and gorgeous. Backgrounds are imbued with a sense of painting style, which is beautiful, and the colors throughout the movie are definitely enchanting. Plus, the character designs for each respective character are also drawing in a notable and unparallel way that definitely adds to the movie’s “folklore” aspect. I love the film’s animation and could go on and on about it as I praise the feature for such a rich and picturesque cartoon film that feels like almost a hidden gem of recent with animated feature endeavors. Thus, I really do have to commend the artistry and animators for this project for their prolithic work on the film. Well done!

Additionally, the film’s style of cinematography should also be noted, which gives the film have refreshing and almost storybook quality in almost every scene. Poignant shots and dramatic moments are outbound in this movie and feels quite mesmerizing in almost every scene as if the film is being theatrically shot / presented in a live-action endeavor. Also, the film’s score, which was composed by Bruno Coulais, provides a beautiful musical composition that’s steeped in that oh-so whimsical nature of Irish folklore that speaks to the feature’s setting and tone as well as being cinematically driven with dramatic moments. Such a great score (even by my standards). Plus, main song feature in the movie “Running with the Wolves” by AUROA is great and definitely compliments the scene that it is presenting in such mystical and highlighting way. Love it!

There was very little that I didn’t like about the movie, but, for the sake of an argument, Wolfwalkers does have a few blemishes of minor criticisms that I noticed. Perhaps the one that’s the most prevalent is in the film’s overall tone, which is does have a good dose of wholesome childhood wonder and humor, but also one that is more serious and a little bit darkly depressing. What I’m talking about is that Wolfwalker’s tone, especially in the latter half of the feature, is darker and has more of a heavier tension display in the feature’s narrative, which is good, but it can be a little bit too much. Yes, I do understand of artistry integrity and what Cartoon Saloon has done with its animated films (both past and present). That being said, the movie becomes more of an adult film with a bit more violence and macabre tones in the second half of the film. Maybe it could’ve been toned down a bit…just a bit. Thus, this acts as a warning to some parents out there that, despite a powerful / moving tale and a dazzling display of animation, Wolfwalkers might not be best suited for some of the younger “juice box” crowd out there. Next, certain scenes come across as a little bit repetitive, with pretty much the same interaction of character dialogue moments and / or lines being quite the same. This is especially noted in Robyn’s conversations with her father, which are frequent and become a tad redundant. Lastly, while I did mention that Wolfwalker’s story takes inspirational influences from both How to Train Your Dragon and Princess Mononoke, some might argue that it takes a more “carbon copy” approach and makes the film’s narrative a bit predictable. Personally, it didn’t bother me at all, but there are few out there that will cry fowl on this particular aspect, especially since both of those animated films have been out for quite some time. Overall, these are more minor nitpicks of criticism and derail the movie at all….at least in my opinion.

What aides the movie in its fanciful alluring nature of beautifully drawn animation and gripping story is in its vocal talents, with Wolfwalkers delivering an all around small (yet quite effective) a cast for its animated characters. Much like the film itself, these particular characters are grounded in commonplace roots of realism and familiarity, yet the film’s unique approach of style and storytelling certainly helps elevate these respective players. This is most prevalent in the feature’s two main characters of Robyn Goodfellowe and Mebh, who are voiced by young actresses Honor Kneafsey and Eva Whittaker. Kneafsey, known for her roles in Benidorm, Miss You Already, and A Christmas Prince, has the most experience of the two and certainly knows how to make a character quite endearing with her voice alone; utilizing an unbridled curiosity and polite demeanor in Robyn, which always makes for a good type of character and easy to root for from start to finish.  Similarly, Whittaker, who is known for her role in The Girl at the End of the Garden, provides to rather good in the role of Mebh. While she doesn’t have a large back catalogue of past works, Whittaker is a delight in the movie; portraying Mebh with a sense of wild and caged free persona in comparsion to Robyn. Naturally, both these particular characters (and their personas) are easily reflected upon the English and Irish folk and the political landscape era of which Wolfwalkers is set in, which makes both Robyn and Mebh relatable and genuine.

Unlike a lot of animated feature films that boast a lot of recognizable / big name stars attached to the feature in voicing characters, Wolfwalkers doesn’t really need to do that, especially since the film’s talent is already quite good and the movie itself gives enough time to make the characters intriguing and personable. That being said, the film does have two recognizable names attached to the project with actors Sean Bean and Simon McBurney playing the parts of Robyn’s father, Bill Goodfellowe, and the oppressive leader Oliver Cromwell known as the “Lord Protector”. Bean, known for his roles in Game of Thrones, Black Death, and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, has been a quite a familiar name (most notable for his on-screen death in a lot of his past projects) and his involvement in this movie is rather well-placed and well-manner, especially in how his voice sounds and resonates with Bill, a kind-hearted yet sternly protective father. The same can be said with McBurney, known for his roles in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Last King of Scotland, and The Conjuring 2, who is more of a reoccurring supporting players in his body of filmography, but still proves to be quite effective in his character portrayal, with his performance of the Lord Protector quite sinisterly evil and a great antagonist (both in character built and in vocal talent). Together, both actors have very distinct sounding voices and are perfect (almost tailored made) for their respective roles. Additionally, actress Maria Doyle Kennedy, who is known for her roles in The Tudors, Outlander, and Orphan Black, is another prominent / known acting talent that is attached to Wolfwalkers; providing the voice for Moll MacTíre, Mebh’s mother and leader of the wolf pack. Like Bean and McBurney, Kennedy’s voice is quite unique and definitely is a “perfect fit” for a movie like this and does provide a certain type of warmth to her character…. even though she’s more in the latter half of the film.

The rest of the cast, including actor Jon Kenny (Les Miserable and Song of the Sea) as Ned the stringy woodcutter, actor John Morton (Lily’s Bad Day and Vultures) as Stumpy, actor / producer Oliver McGrath (The Secret of Kells and The Musician) as local town bully Padraig, and director Nora Twomey (Breadwinner and The Secret of the Kells) as the head housekeeper in the Lord Protector’s scullery Bridget, round out the rest of the Wolfwalkers’s players in more minor supporting character roles. These particular characters (as one can imagine) are limited to being minor capacity, yet each one has their own creative uniqueness (be it vocal talents and / or character design) to make them memorable.

FINAL THOUGHTS


In a time of English occupation in Ireland and mystical superstitions, a young girl befriends a strange shapeshifter as the pair learns from each other and ultimately come together help save one another’s families in the movie Wolfwalkers. Director Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s latest projects sees the fourth film in Cartoon Saloon’s release in a terrific fashion of mixing poignant storytelling and creative artistry to help enrich an animated film with pure fanciful delight. The movie is pure wonderment of magic and friendship and deserves high praise from the film’s directors, a meaningful story, incredibly amazing style of animation, beautiful score, a solid voice acting across the board in all facets and positions. Personally, I loved this movie. It was something quite unique and different from the normal animated films of late and offers up such a delightful and meaningful tale of two young girls that are caught up in the greater events of the land. Plus, the film’s animation again is quite stunning and I loved it! Thus, my recommendation for the film is a “highly recommended” one as it should be seeing by all, especially those who have a special affinity for cartoon features with skilled artistry and narrative integrity. With the conclusion of this movie, Cartoon Saloon closes its chapter on what it’s calling it “Irish Folklore” trilogy of films. What does that mean for the future of the company? Who knows? Let’s hope that the studio will continue more fascinating features of various tales and myths, including more Irish folklore perhaps. Nevertheless, Wolfwalkers is a cinematic experience that acts as a breath of fresh air; boldly taking viewers on an enchanting adventure that both entertains and symbolizes what strong and palpable storytelling can occur from such a small animated studio.

4.5 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)

 

Released On: December 11th, 2020
Reviewed On: January 22nd, 2021

Wolfwalkers  is 103 minutes long and is rated PG for sequences of violence, peril / scary images, along with some thematic elements

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