Disney has long been the big name in animation. That being so, many have lamented Disney’s transition to the three-dimensional, computer-generated style that began with 2006’s “Chicken Little” and made waves after breaking into princess territory with 2010’s “Tangled.” We already had Pixar (which itself was readily swallowed by the ever-mushrooming mouse conglomerate in 2006), and DreamWorks abandoned 2D stuff in the early 2000s, so why change things up, why the homogeneity? 2011 marked the last year for hand-drawn Disney films with “Winnie the Pooh” and ever since then it’s been smooth, rounded renderings as far as the eye can see.
But, as much as our mousy overlords would like us to believe, Disney isn’t the only name out there. Hand drawn animation is largely a thing of the past, but 2D styles are still rife among scrappy companies in the US and animation studios across Europe and Asia. Studio Ghibli dominates culturally, and rightfully so, but there’s lots of love to go around — and none is more deserving than Irish studio Cartoon Saloon. Their filmography is small, but the quality is dense — Tomm Moore’s “The Secret of Kells” and the truly excellent “Song of the Sea,” as well as Nora Twomey’s revelatory “The Breadwinner” (currently streaming on Netflix) all nabbed nominations for Best Animated Feature. Premiering at this year’s (virtual) Toronto International Film Festival, “Wolfwalkers” — co-directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart (art director for both of Moore’s Celtic-inspired adventures) — is looking to be no different.
Much like “The Secret of Kells,” “Wolfwalkers” is a folklore-inspired tale of derring-do on the part of young children in pre-modern Ireland. The story features Robyn Goodfellow (Honor Kneafsey, “A Christmas Prince”), a precocious hunter-in-training who has traveled with her father (Sean Bean, “Dark River”) from England to Killkenny, Ireland to ferret out the last remaining wolves. In the extramural wilds, Robyn befriends a supernaturally gifted girl, Mebh (Eva Whittaker). Mebh and her mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy, “The Conjuring 2”) are the eponymous wolfwalkers —werewolf-type folk who have an uncanny influence over nature and can astrally project lupine avatars in their sleep. In something of a PG rendition of “Princess Mononoke,” this wolf-girl and her wolves defend the forest from encroaching woodcutters and the colonizing march of the English flag led by the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney, “The Mercy”), an autocratic Bible-thumping sour grape of a man.
That story is nothing we haven’t seen before. Robyn is the Disney princess type with braided hair, buckled boots and a cute bird sidekick; Mebh is the tempestuous wild child with perpetually muddied feet — but they both have a devil-may-care attitude that establishes an instant connection. The father doesn’t listen to his daughter, the stuffy authority figure hates the outdoors and calls everything witchcraft, the bad people aren’t the bad people that our heroine was led to believe, etc. All of that is moving and executed very well — story beats land, Robyn and Mebh are fun and interesting and if Moore and Stewart hadn’t gone the soul sisters route, a story of (wolf) puppy love would have been sweet and welcome. But it’s not the plot that makes “Wolfwalkers” remarkable.
“The Secret of Kells” was praised for its unique and beautiful 2D animation style, inspired by the illuminated pages of the famous Book of Kells. And credit where credit is due — “Kells” is beautiful. But “Wolfwalkers” is an improvement in every respect. The manuscript-style art design is maintained but elevated, producing one of the most gorgeous animated films in recent memory, something more worthy of that rarefied Book of Kells than “The Secret of Kells” ever was.
Darling anime director Makoto Shinkai has electrified fans with photorealistic detail that dazzles in movies like “Your Name” and “Weathering with You.” “Wolfwalkers” reaches similar heights — begging us to pause the movie and just marvel at the detail and artistry — by going in the opposite direction and reminding us that art is more than just an imitation of reality. The fairytale, children’s book aesthetic makes for lavish and perpetually interesting scenery and movement. In Mebh’s wild woods, the trees and runic megaliths are like watercolor composed of fluid shapes with colors bleeding outside the lines. When throngs of wolves descend on lumberjacks, they surge and swell like the push and pull of tides. In Robyn’s city, edifices are blocky and space is flat and compressed. In a few memorable scenes, the walled and boxy city looks like a poster plastered on the horizon rather than a bona fide city bustling in the distance. These design choices are, of course, metaphorical — maybe even a bit on the nose — but very much welcome.
The film’s alluring and allegorical imagery capitulates in the second act with a style Moore calls “wolfvision.” In wolfvision, the world is recast in effervescent neon color as every sound and smell becomes part of the visual palette in a brilliant phantasmagoric display. Slap on a vibey original score and song by French composer Bruno Coulais and Irish folk group Kíla, and this perspective-shifting sequence is truly scintillating. And like the art direction as a whole, wolfvision is also metaphorical — Robyn literally widens and enriches her perspective when she looks at the world through the eyes of another.
“Wolfwalkers” works best this way — as a symbiosis, or rather a lack of difference, between form and meaning. Again, the visuals are where it truly shines. But great animation isn’t just a pretty picture that sings and dances: It’s a vehicle. In this case, the visuals are a vehicle for strong and agential female characters, themes that touch on both ecological and colonial degradation and a didactic historical frame, if an otherwise tried and true storyline. As the final film in Moore and Cartoon Saloon’s triptych of Irish folklore, “Wolfwalkers” is a heartwarming, energetic entry that gives a commanding demonstration of the power and magic of moving pictures.
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