Wolves, an adventurous young girl who is adept with a bow and arrow, and Sean Bean delivering lines in his majestic Sheffield accent while his character sports a fur coat. No, this is not the pilot of Game of Thrones, although the first few minutes could prove slightly distracting for fans of that series as the similarities are quite obvious.
As it transpires, Wolfwalkers, the latest effort from Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, is bound to occasionally remind viewers of numerous popular fantasy films, particularly those aimed at children. Set in 17th century Kilkenny during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, the most recent entry in the studio’s critically acclaimed filmography revolves around Robyn Goodfellowe, a dauntless teenage girl from England whose widowed father, Bill, has been assigned to exterminate a wolf pack lurking in the county’s shadows Struggling to adapt to new surroundings, Robyn cannot resist the urge to explore the enchanted forest where their targets reside. This leads to an encounter with the vivacious Mébh, setting off a chain of events which will plunge the county into chaos.
From reading that synopsis, anyone well-versed in noteworthy family entertainment should be able to draw comparisons to the likes of The Lion King and How to Train Your Dragon. Fortunately, Cartoon Saloon’s dazzling production also boasts a similarly high level of quality. While the film does not go out of its way to subvert or transcend the archetypal characters and ideas present throughout, Wolfwalkers uses them as the foundations upon which to build an eye-catching and emotionally rewarding spectacle. Although we have witnessed figures like Robyn undergo trials and tribulations of comparable ilk in other works, the endeavour and tenderness win you over almost immediately. Likewise, the psychological conflict she shares with her father could be perceived as rather formulaic, with the latter epitomising the stereotypical honourable but arguably overprotective parent attempting to come to terms with his own grief. However, the piece devotes enough considerable attention to highlighting the fractures in their relationship that we can empathise with both parties and root for their mutual safety.
The heart of Wolfwalkers is formed through a dynamic that is rather rare in contemporary animated works – that between Robyn and Mébh. Layered female friendships have been sorely lacking in many family films, so it is a relief to see one that elicits such warmth and personality. Both are sprightly individuals, slightly rebellious but ultimately good-natured. Their genealogical backgrounds differ quite drastically, yet one issue ties them together: reckoning with the absence of a maternal figure. This strain manifests in alternative ways for both, with Mébh’s desire to rescind long-running torment acting as the bedrock for narrative developments in the film’s second half as well as significantly shaping the trajectory Robyn’s arc. If anything, the endearing companionship between the two warrants more screen time, but the scenes they do share together are highlights in a movie already brimming with memorable moments.
The complexity of emotions conveyed through Robyn and Mébh’s friendship extends to the overall tone of Wolfwalkers. The splendid job the film does in regards to its characterisation subsequently increases the stakes once it reaches its conclusion. Peril lingers throughout the final act, and while audience may allow themselves to gain a sense of security from recognising numerous archetypes in its initial stages, a happy ending does not feel guaranteed. This apprehension can be partially attributed to the storyline being grounded in the context of the Cromwellian war, and directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart strikingly capture the unrest which pervades the setting of Kilkenny as well as the affects the atrocities committed during the Parliamentarian conquest have had on its citizens. The film finds room to include moments of broad humour (most of them delivered when Robyn spends time with Mébh in the vibrant enchanted forest), but they serviceably juxtapose the precariousness of the central characters and the location where they reside.
All of Wolfwalkers’ strengths are bolstered by the magnificent visuals on display throughout. Like their previous works, Cartoon Saloon’s latest is rendered in a 2D style. While many animation studios these days rely upon digital modelling and computer graphics, the Irish company has consistently championed an emphasis on illustration designs, seeking to improve upon their previous effort’s art design in innovative ways. The tonal contrast between the film’s two primary locations is reflected in how they are represented visually; while the main town appears inflexible with its geometrically-designed inhabitants, the forest manifests beautifully through pencil sketching and watercolour painting. Thankfully, Wolfwalkers is not vulnerable to being labelled as a case of ‘style over substance’. There are numerous images in the film that will make your jaw drop, but the incorporation of certain styles and colour palettes propel the narrative rather than serving purely as a feast for the eyes.
Given the dearth in animated films aimed at mainstream audiences this year, mainly due to delays resulting from Covid-19, it feels like the time has come for Cartoon Saloon’s fanbase to experience a substantial increase, especially when their recent offering carries such wide appeal. Despite a runtime of 115 minutes which might test the patience of some younger viewers, the swift pacing, charming characters, wondrous visuals, and subtle but resonant insight into a seminal period in Irish history all contribute to its position as a strong contender in the Animated Feature category across multiple shows in the upcoming awards season.
Wolfwalkers will be available to stream on Apple TV+ from December 11th.