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Sunday, December 13, 2020

Wolfwalkers


Isn't it funny that animation is a medium that can create images that are impossible in our reality, and yet all too often in mainstream cinema, most animated films are content with simply recreating current pop culture trends?  Sure, there are exceptions in Hollywood, like Laika Studios, but most seem content with bringing us the usual talking animals and funny Minions that we have seen before.  Wolfwalkers, the newest film from Irish based Cartoon Saloon, is one of the more wondrous animated features I've seen in a while.  Rooted deep in Irish folklore, yet accessible to all audiences, this is the kind of family film I go to the movies for, as it not only tells a great story, but shows me sights I have never seen before.  

All of the past films the studio has released, like The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner, have all been rooted deep in mythology and the history of the culture that the stories were set in.  Wolfwalkers is the same way, as it's set in the 17th Century of Kilkenny Ireland, the very area where the studio was founded.  They are working off of local history and myths here, and combining them to create a moving, exciting, and ultimately poignant film.  It's also just beautiful to look at.  Even with the past high standards the studio has done, this feels like what they've been building up to this entire time.  With a lush storybook visual style, and a certain flow to how the characters move, this is a film that grabs your attention just from its look alone.  Even if the story is not exactly fast-paced, it's not sluggish either, and is certain to enthrall any child who watches it, and perhaps even more so the adults.  

The film opens in 1650, and a pompous and pious English general who insists on being called the Lord Protector by his followers (voice by Simon McBurney) has settled his people in a cold and rigid Irish city with prison-like walls on the edge of a forest.  His main goal is to prove to his people that nature can be tamed, and he aims to show this by destroying the forest so that his kingdom can expand.  He controls his soldiers and townspeople with fear and dominance, and even though he has plenty of detractors, they are afraid to speak up in his presence.  One not-entirely loyal member of the army is the widower Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean), a hunter who has been tasked with killing all of the wolves that inhabit the forest so that the Lord Protector can scorch and clear the land for expansion without any resistance.  However, Bill keeps his head down and does not speak any opposition, mainly to protect his one and only daughter, Robyn (Honor Kneafsey, giving a spirited voice performance).

It is law that no children leave the safety of the city walls, but Robyn is an adventurous sort who frequently sneaks past the guards in the hopes that her father will let her join him in his daily hunts.  Bill swore to his late wife that he would keep their child safe, but the enticement of tracking wolves rather than spending her days within the walls doing the chores of a scullery maid is too strong for the tomboyish girl to ignore.  Entering the forest on her own, Robyn discovers that the wolves within are quite unusual, and seem to answer to a wild-haired and feral girl who lives within the woods.  She is Mebh MacTire (Eva Whittaker), a mythical Wolfwalker, just like her mother.  A Wolfwalker is a human who takes the form of a wolf when they sleep.  They also possess supernatural healing powers.  Mebh has lived peacefully with her wolf pack, but the intruding humans are causing an imbalance in nature.  Robyn becomes personally involved in the struggle when she learns first-hand that Mebh's unique shapeshifting abilities can be passed on to others.

Less you think Wolfwalkers is a heavy-handed environmental movie, you would be wrong.  This is a briskly told story about friendship as Robyn and Mebh quickly build a bond that becomes even stronger as the film goes on.  There is also a strong emotional core to the story, as Mebh does not know where her mother is (she left one night, and never came back), and is determined to learn what happened to her, even if that means leaving the safety of the woods.  Robyn has her own personal struggles, as she tries to explain to her father what she has learned from her time in the forest.  This creates a lot of tension that tests the friendship between the two girls.  Robyn simply wants to help her new friend, and as she learns more about the situation, she begins to think the best way to help is to hide the truth from her.  There is a storybook like quality to the screenplay by Will Collins that combines magical whimsy with adventure, and a genuine sense of friendship and discovery.  

This alone would be thrilling, but when you combine this great story with the visual artistry on display, you have a truly enthralling entertainment.  Contrasting the cold, gray steely look of Robyn's village with the fluid autumn-like colors of Mebh's forest is stunning, and creates the proper tone for each scene.  Another highlight is when we get to see the film visualize Mebh's wolf senses of smell and hearing, using some unique animation styles to bring it to life in a way that really needs to be seen.  Just watching these characters move on the screen can be a delight, as everyone moves differently.  There is a freedom to movement here that only animation can provide, especially when the wolf pack are making their way through the forest with an almost water-like flow.  Even smaller moments like when Robyn brushes some leaves out of Mebh's tangled fire-red hair are enchanting to watch.  This is the rare film where not a single scene has not been painstakingly crafted.


Even if 2020 had been a normal year for movie releases, Wolfwalkers would still stand as the very best animated film of the year, likely.  It's enchanting, heartfelt, exciting, and beautifully told in a way few family films are.  The filmmakers have overlooked no detail here, not even the beautiful soundtrack that accompanies the film.  This is the kind of movie that makes you want to see what the studio will do next as soon as possible. 

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