The latest from Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells director Tomm Moore, along with Ross Stewart sharing directing duties, is a visual feast. Wolfwalkers may not hit at the same level of emotional poignancy as Moore’s previous outing in the stunning Song of the Sea, but when it hits its highest highs, it is some of the director’s greatest and most visually complex work to date. Not only is Wolfwalkers a reminder of the power 2D animation can convey, it’s also an effective story about the bonds of sisterhood and the ways in which paranoia can seep into every crevice of day-to-day life when you’re told that to work is to pray, and to pray is to lead a virtuous life, caging people in before they’ve even looked to the wind to take flight. While the film is overlong and repetitive with some of its more obvious thoroughlines, its moments of magic are breathtaking.
Set in 17th century Ireland, Wolfwalkers takes place during a period of superstition and fear in which a community lives behind a gated wall to shield themselves from wolves who are called demonic by their overlord. A young girl named Robyn aspires to be like her father and hunt wolves so that she might be able to escape the mundane redundancy of her current existence where most days she’s forced to stay closed into her small home where only she and her father live. However, after learning wolfwalkers are real following a run in with a young girl named Mebh, a wolfwalker herself (someone who transforms into a wolf when asleep), she realizes they and the woods they inhabit must be protected at whatever the cost, especially when she begins to transform into what the village is so fearful of.
The storyline, like many a great fairytale or piece of folklore, isn’t unfamiliar. A young, spirited girl looking to reach past what society has deemed her fit to do, an overprotective father willing to stop at nothing to protect his little girl (especially if the mother is an offscreen casualty), and something mythical, magical or otherwise that lures the protagonist away from their “safe” reality to a world of wonders and greater opportunities. They’re familiar because, when done well, this is a format that works and, for the most part, Wolfwalkers is a solid example of it. Where it most succeeds in the story is the fact that the one who convinces Robyn to escape the routine that she knows is another young girl and it’s their bond of immediate and warm friendship that the film builds its heart around. The less effective bits are when their stories don’t converge. The opening act lasts longer than it should where we watch Robyn get chastised by her father far too many times to stay within the walls before the real action ever begins. When the lore of the wolfwalkers is introduced, Robyn and Mebh begin to grow closer, and this is when the film finds its true spirit.
None of this would be nearly as effective without the whimsical animation. The colors take over the screen as the characters enter the woods for the first time, autumnal shades stretching over the frame that made the story vibrantly come to life. The art doesn’t stand still as the characters move throughout it, the style shifting and changing along with the characters and their moods. A sequence where colors bleed from the screen and then erupt back into the now blank canvas is stunning. Similarly too, a moment where in anger, Robyn’s father towers over her and the frame rate shifts, the lines blurring in rapid motion as the colors of the world tint red in his fury. The greatest is when Robyn explores her first night transformed, traveling by smell as the animation softens into something more traditionally fantastical—the forest blooming with magic. The way you see the evident lines in the character designs add a sense of tangibility to its world.
The themes of what happens when human brutality looks to isolate a world due to a fear of the unknown are certainly present and, in some moments, inarguably powerful. However, so much of the goodwill this film gains is through the craftsmanship alone. From its artistry and a Celtic score by Bruno Coulais and Kila, Wolfwalkers is a kinetic and evocative film in its quietest moments. It’s a shame that it couldn’t sustain the momentum it achieves once Mebh and Robyn meet, but the tone of breaking free from a stifling community remains urgent, and the art constantly shifts to fit the mood of the film, never allowing it to meet a dull moment. It falls short of its best moments, but those high points are unquestionably mesmerizing.
This is a reprint from the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival