Premise: A young apprentice hunter and her father journey to Ireland to help wipe out the last wolf pack. But everything changes when she befriends a free-spirited girl from a mysterious tribe rumored to transform into wolves by night.
It’s been 6 years in the US since the latest film from Japanese master filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, which means that the animation world (and yours truly) has been sorely lacking an animated film with enough style and heart to break through the candy-coated onslaught of Disney and Pixar films.
Cartoon Saloon, the studio behind modern animated gems like The Breadwinner and The Secret of Kells has created a wistful, joyous film that is almost as fun to look at as it is to experience. Boomer nostalgia has long been harkening back to the days of hand-drawn animation since the dominance of CGI films, but Wolfwalkers manages to beautifully thread that needle. Though much of the visuals are, indeed, drawn with pencil and paper and watercolor, there are some digital elements, and the melding of the two is one of the film’s greatest strengths.
Set in Ireland in 1650, the story cribs some elements from classic Disney films: an outsider protagonist who dreams of an adventurous life, an absent mother, a misunderstood enemy, and even a magical forest. The hero is Robyn (voiced by Honor Knesfsey), who has recently moved to the Irish town of Kilkenny with her father (Sean Bean). Not content with merely staying inside and tending the scullery, Robyn follows her father as he hunts the nearby forest in search of the wolves that have been terrorizing the townspeople.
It’s here where she meets the wild, mythical wolfwalker, Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a spritely young girl who can communicate with the wolves of the forest, and whose instantly recognizable red hair doesn’t hold back her ferocity. It’s also here where the animation really evolves, as Mebh, and the forest’s animation style, is given even greater weight: whereas Robyn and her father and the rest of the cast are mostly cleanly rendered, with Mebh and the wolves, pencil lines and brush strokes are still visible in most frames. On my second viewing, I noticed that the backgrounds of the city have more of a classic, woodblock feel, while the forest is all ink and watercolor. Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart wisely make this creative choice not only to visually differentiate the two groups, but to draw attention to the level of care that’s been put into the film. You can literally see the labor of love that went into the crafting of nearly every minute detail.
Is the film’s imaginative artistry enough to cover up the rather unimaginative story? The characters are given a grown-up level of sincerity, even if the end result is fairly predictable. Thankfully, Moore and Stewart don’t try to make Wolfwalkers into a “message movie”, as so many Pixar films turn out to be. There is a hint of a “man versus nature” leaning to Wolfwalkers that thankfully doesn’t get too heavy-handed. Think Princess Mononoke’s environmentalism mixed with The Little Mermaid’s sense of longing. Yes, Robyn is a nuanced, modern-age heroine, but the film’s sole purpose isn’t to see her answer the hero’s call. Here is a film that tells young girls they don’t necessarily have to be fierce warrior princesses in order to make a difference. Indeed, Robyn spends much of the film just trying to find a solution without resorting to violence.
I don’t know if Wolfwalkers is a film that children will enjoy very much (and that’s OK! Not every animated film has to cater to audiences of all ages). While the film does have action and thrilling moments, it lacks the diverse set pieces that have been focus-grouped to death in order to hold a child’s attention. There is one original song at about the midway point, but it’s no Let It Go or Remember Me. And while Robyn and Mebh and their world are richly drawn – in more than one sense of the word – I doubt many kids are going to marvel at the artistic beauty throughout the entire runtime. Though the film never overstays its welcome, there were a handful of scenes that probably could have been trimmed by a few minutes to make the film feel sleeker. Thank goodness Moore and Stewart at least had the good sense to leave all of the animals mute, lest we be subjected to another Olaf or Iago.
Still, despite its story flaws, Wolfwalkers feels like a breath of fresh air. The film is Apple TV’s first animated feature, and if the acquisition is any indication of the kind of stories they value, it provides yet another element that sets the streaming service apart from its competitors. The world needs more animated films like Wolfwalkers, and though it could be easy to mimic the look of the film, it’s much more difficult to imbue a film with the heart and soul that Moore and Stewart have.
Wolfwalkers is now streaming on Apple TV+.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and a recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.