Every year we get a slew of animated pictures from major studios looking to cash in and draw families to the theater for some often creative and imaginative fun, but once in a while a more unique animated offering slides its way into the mix proving that smaller studios can provide just as much quality and heart as the big guys. The new Apple TV+ film “Wolfwalkers” is a great example. Produced by Cartoon Saloon, an Irish animation studio most well-known for “The Secret of the Kells” and “Song of the Sea”, and directed by one of the co-directors of both those movies Tomm Moore along with Ross Stewart, “Wolfwalkers” is as colorful and unique as its predecessors and serves as fantastic alternative viewing to the mostly CGI mainstream efforts of other big-name distributors. It’s a fine reminder that animation is more than just a form of family entertainment and truly is a spectacular artform to behold in the right hands.
“Wolfwalkers” stars Honor Kneafsey as Robyn, an apprentice hunter who dreams of joining her dad, a hunter named Bill (Sean Bean) in hunting wolves outside of the castle walls of their small society which is overseen by “The Lord Protector” Cromwell (Simon McBurney) who sees the wolves as a nuisance destined to be eliminated or tamed. Robyn follows Bill into the forest against his wishes and comes across another young girl named Mebh (Eva Whittaker) and learns that Mebh is a wolfwalker who becomes a wolf at night while her human body sleeps. Together the pair attempt to foil Cromwell’s plans or ridding the forest of Mebh’s pack while also trying to discover the whereabouts of Mebh’s mother who has gone missing in her wolf form. The story gets much more complicated than that with a few fun twists and subplots, but that’s the gist of it. It all combines to create one of the most fun and breathtaking animated pictures of 2020 with plenty of energy mixed in with some effective somber moments and familiar story beats that, somehow, feels surprisingly original in the hands of the skilled cast, writers, animators and directors.
“Wolfwalkers” is very unique for today’s world of cinema. The animation genuinely looks hand painted and drawn, often adapting elements of watercolor or storybook art into its aesthetic. It’s absolutely gorgeous to look at and stands out in our current world of computer graphics and more polished animation styles. There’s this neat fairytale feel about the whole experience like your seeing a storybook come to life, but not one specifically made for kids mind you. Some of the imagery is more mature and even frightening at times allowing this film to be fitting for anyone who wants a unique experience in animated cinema. The character designs are unique and stand out, the backgrounds are a cool mix of detail and less polished linework which helps guide the viewer’s focus to the right places, and the color pallets help set the mood in every scene as well as provide some fitting contrast between the brick-and-mortar city within the castle walls and the majestic and natural forest outside. In some ways “Wolfwalkers” is a fascinating flashback to a simpler time in animation where careful artistic choices helped define the mood and personality of not only the story but the presentation as well. Anything that could be perceived as an imperfection feel designed to compliment the film rather than feeling like actual mistakes. The background and colors are just as essential to this tale as the characters are. While I respect CGI animated pictures and have grown to love them, there’s just something so personal and sincere about a more hand-drawn approach which is evoked fully through “Wolfwalkers'” mesmerizing presentation.
It’s not just the art style that drew me in though. I loved the voicework and characters in this film. Mebh and Robyn are both memorable heroines who soon become sister figures despite their opposite personalities, Mebh being a confident and energetic wolfwalker and Robyn being an adventure-seeker who isn’t quite as sure of herself as she thinks she is. Actresses Eva Whittaker and Honor Kneafsey genuinely sound like they enjoyed working with each other behind the mic. Their dialogue and chemistry is seamless and neither overshadow each other in any way. Other talented actors help bring secondary characters to life like Sean Bean as Robyn’s caring and cautious father Bill and Simon McBurney as the film’s villain Cromwell, a religious leader motivated by his belief in humanity as a superior species. Maria Doyle Kennedy also does some fine voicework as Mebh’s mother Moll although she takes a back seat to the rest of the cast for the bulk of the film. It’s a fun cast and it’s nice to hear them use their natural accents to help sell the Irish setting of the movie making it feel that much more grounded in a real world we can understand and appreciate.
A couple criticisms worth noting, and I’m not saying anything new here from other critics, is that “Wolfwalkers” can often suffer from mild issues of pacing and tonal shifts and also bears some uncomfortably close similarities to a certain Pixar movie. “Wolfwalkers” likes to jump between moments of childlike wonder and comedic levity to more powerful scenes involving family loss and the fear of the unknown. These blend well enough for most of the film but there are times where the transitions can feel a bit jarring and this can result in some pacing issues as the movie brings the energy up and then all of a sudden slows down to a crawl for a few minutes to explore some character backstory or a subplot. It happens rarely and it didn’t bother me too much but it definitely was something I couldn’t help but notice. There are also some very familiar elements to this story as well, many feeling reminiscent of Pixar’s film “Brave” from the idea of people turning into animals to a redhead being one of the heroines and the Irish mythology that helps tie it all together. It’s not a complete copy, in fact it’s more of an Irish retelling of the werewolf mythology than a “Brave” rehash, but again it’s something I noticed, and I felt it was worth pointing out if not as a mild criticism then simply as a fun realization.
“Wolfwalkers” is a colorful, fun, engaging and beautifully crafted modern fairytale that’s definitely worth checking out. The art style is unique and breathtaking for today’s world, the story, while familiar, feels fresh and inspired in its own special ways, the voicework feels invested and there are some nice themes and messages added in to compliment the personal journeys the characters endure. In an age where CGI animated films are pretty much the standard it’s nice to see a movie take a step back to a more traditional 2D aesthetic reminding us of just how diverse animation as an artform really is. In a lot of ways the raw presentation gives “Wolfwalkers” its own special visual flair that I can’t help but appreciate. This isn’t the first animated masterpiece by Cartoon Saloon and it hopefully won’t be their last. It’s not only one of the best animated movies of 2020, but one of the best movies of the year in any genre as well.