2D animation was somewhat left in the dust when ‘better’ CGI technology came about, but there’s been a resurgence of sorts in the last few years as people have come to miss its simplicity. For Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, this call more for more hand-drawn adventures was not an opportunity to be missed. From the makers of The Breadwinner and Song of the Sea, Wolfwalkers is a lore-infused tale with the spirit of the likes of Princess Mononoke and an immensely talented creative team at its heart.
When Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), the daughter of an English wolfhunter, comes across a wolfwalker — a mythical creature that can transform into a wolf, communicate with animals, and has the ability to heal — she has to contend with unenlightened townsfolk and her father, Bill (Sean Bean), as she tries to protect her new friend. Robyn and her father are living in Ireland while her father works for Lord Protector Cromwell: a vicious English ruler occupying Irish land. When the edges of the town start crossing into wolf territory, Cromwell decides to show his townspeople his ability to tame wild beasts. In a film that doesn’t shy away from the darker parts of humanity and the history between England and Ireland, it’s clear what Cromwell is really referring to when he speaks of taming and creating a more civilized town.
Wolfwalkers’ story begins in a way you’d expect from an animated film geared towards girls: Robyn is kept in a metaphorical cage. Her father wants her to work as a scullery maid, but she dreams of adventure and following in his footsteps. While the jumping-off point is somewhat cliche, Wolfwalkers strays from the pack quickly after.
As we see Mebh and Robyn live in increasing fear while they try to exist as happy children, we’re treated to splendid visuals. Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart, and Nora Twomey’s art direction is splendid. Wolfwalkers is vivid and clever, always using smart lighting, colors, and direction to create immersion and tell their story in a way that doesn’t have to demand attention due to it already being so easily earned.
Will Collins’ screenplay is delightful, too. Robyn and Mebh get to behave like kids instead of miraculous heroes, their mistakes and fears getting the better of them on multiple occasions. Wolfwalkers understands that while young people have an inherent ability to empathize and tolerate, it’s adults who have to allow them room to share those qualities and change the world.
Wolfwalkers is at its best when it’s driving up turmoil. While being a fairly family-friendly film, it’s not all butterflies and faeries. The cruel ignorance of the townspeople is difficult to watch, and Mebh and Robyn are two lost little girls who’s kindness and desire for peace are constantly swept aside for the apparent greater good. Except, the greater good is not good at all.
Bill simply wants to protect his daughter and avoid punishment for failing at his hunting duties, but he himself is in chains — his every move is dictated, and he must follow through no matter how devious Cromwell’s orders are. This is a story of boxes and limitations, and how scary it can be to try and break free to offer an alternative. Wolfwalkers posits that we have every right to wish for an escape and to want something better for ourselves. It’s a lovely thought, and the film builds itself around the idea of bravery overcoming fear. There’s layered storytelling to be found here, and messages we all — especially kids — need to hear.
With lovely music, a capable voice cast, and a poignant story, Wolfwalkers is a win for Apple TV+’s original programming and a reminder of the charm its 2D format offers.