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Photo: ‘Wolfwalkers’/Apple TV
‘Wolfwalkers’ – An Irish folktale
For many Irish people in the 17th century, Ireland was not a pleasant place to be. With the ascension of the Protestant Oliver Cromwell to the head of the English state, Irish Catholics were subjected to forced colonization and religious persecution. The Irish way of life, less modernized and more at peace with the natural world, was seen as untenably primitive. Outsiders, dissidents, and freethinkers faced time in the stocks, ostracization, or forced labor/military service if they stepped out of line. If there was a silver lining, it’s that you were far less likely to be tried as a witch in Ireland. Perhaps due to its rich folkloric traditions, Ireland had significantly fewer witch trials than England–this lax attitude toward the supernatural is exactly the kind of thing Cromwell’s forces wanted to civilize out of people.
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This time period is the backdrop of Wolfwalkers, a gorgeously animated film from directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart of the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon. The film follows a young girl named Robyn Goodfellow (Honor Kneafsey), whose name happens to be an alias of the trickster Puck from Shakespeare’s fairytale A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and her father Bill Goodfellow (Sean Bean), a widowed wolf hunter attempting to integrate into one of England’s new Irish colonies.
The Goodfellow’s have moved to Ireland from their native England, where Robyn enjoyed an idyllic childhood much like the one enjoyed by the young King Arthur in the Forest Sauvage. She knows her way around the forests, she’s adept with a crossbow, and she even has a pet falcon named Merlyn. None of these things are deemed suitable by The Lord Protector (Simon McBurney), a character based on but never specifically acknowledged by name as Oliver Cromwell. Soon, Robyn is relegated to scullery work while her father struggles to fall in line with The Lord Protector’s vision of taming the country by culling the wolves in the forest just outside the settlement’s walls.
The call of the wild
The forest beckons Robyn, and it is through her exploration of that earthy, verdant environment that the film comes breathlessly to life. While the animators portray the walled-in city with hyperbolically rigid rectangles and medieval-style wood etchings, the visuals of the woodland have a vibrant, freehand feel. Animals are drawn with visible vitality, with sketch lines left in the finished product to emphasize their fluidity as they ebb and flow, each in their place in an immaculately-realized animated landscape.
It is during a clandestine adventure into the forest that Robyn meets Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a sharp-toothed, smudge-nosed, redheaded young girl who lives in the forest with her mother and her loyal pack of wolves. While Robyn is visually presented as being angular and somewhat refined, Mebh is drawn as a literal force of nature, because she is one. She barks, howls, and pilfers bread and potatoes from nearby farmers. Her massive head of hair renders her a red blur as she runs, and when she joins the phalanx of her wolfpack they merge into a single organism.
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After some initial apprehension in which both girls comment on each other’s respective forest and city stinks, they become fast friends. Mebh reveals to Robyn that she and her mother are wolfwalkers, a kind of shapeshifter somewhat similar to the wargs in Game of Thrones. When they sleep, they become wolves, and they can only awaken when the wolves they inhabit are reunited with their human bodies. While in wolf form, Mebh’s mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy) disappeared while seeking a new home for their pack, which has caused her human body to be in a semi-permanent slumber in the heart of their den. Together, the girls decide to work together to find Mebh’s mother and peacefully resolve the differences between the townspeople and the wolves–if they can only get the adults to listen.
The Irish Studio Ghibli
Fans of Studio Ghibli will certainly resonate with the nuanced characterization and themes present here. Wolfwalkers thoughtfully examines humanity’s place in the natural world, probing its characters’ psyches to understand their hopes and fears. The film’s relationships are excellently crafted, especially the friendship between Robyn and Mebh and the loving yet strained bond between Robyn and her father. There’s a profound weight to the struggles of these characters not frequently seen in family-friendly entertainment.
The 17th century was an intensely difficult time to be alive; so often, there is a sort of dissonance in efforts to bring this reality to life in fiction. Often, films set in these time periods make only the most superficial efforts to establish verisimilitude, ending up with a shallow facsimile of a historical era, full of anachronisms. Wolfwalkers succeeds because it is deeply imbued with authentic texture and personality. Having outside knowledge of the time period presented may increase your appreciation of the film, but uninitiated children and adults alike will come away from the film with a new understanding of Ireland under Cromwell.
It can’t be overstated how hypnotically immersive Wolfwalkers is. The level of creativity in the animation is just staggering. When characters enter wolf form, we are given first-person perspectives of their experience–this includes visualizations of scent, sound, and the human spirits inside the wolf bodies. Each sense has its own unique and intuitive visual representation. It’s like seeing a thought experiment brought to life. It’s simply brilliant. By showing us the forest and the city from a non-human point of view, Wolfwalkers examines how the human impact on the natural world has aspects that humans themselves cannot be aware of. It’s thought-provoking and refreshingly non-anthropocentric.
Animation for everyone
Wolfwalkers also taps into its folk roots with a phenomenal soundtrack. Composer Bruno Coulais provides ethereal, haunting traditional arrangements for strings and flute, while Norwegian artist AURORA and Irish group Kíla supply catchy, anthemic tracks that are as charming and exultant as anything Alan Menken composed for Disney. In some ways, the film bears a thematic resemblance to Disney’s Pocahontas, although Wolfwalkers is a decidedly less Hollywoodized and toyetic vision than anything from the House of Mouse. As the fourth film from the consistently fantastic Cartoon Saloon animation studio, Wolfwalkers fits into a welcome growing trend of animation counterprogramming for families seeking more substantial and meaningful content in their entertainment.
That’s not to say that Wolfwalkers will only appeal to children and their parents. The film’s willingness to tackle the weighty subject matter and its epiphany-inducing visuals make it a film with broad cross-generational appeal. This may seem like a bit of a stretch, but Wolfwalkers’ intense visual flair may also attract fans of A24 films like Ari Aster’s Midsommar and Robert Eggers’ The VVitch. While it’s considerably different in overall tone, the film is actually quite reminiscent of The VVitch, both in subject matter and in its attention to authentic reproduction. That film told the story of a family that breaks away from community groupthink only to double down on repressive ideology and find themselves in an existential conflict with the natural world. Wolfwalkers is a sort of five-years-later palate cleanser; it’s a story of discarding the toxic aspects of society and finding the human soul in the pathless woods.
Wolfwalkers is currently playing in select theaters. It will be available December 11 on Apple TV+.
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