Wolfwalkers review: A magical wonder
James R | On 11, Dec 2020
Director: Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart
Cast: Eva Whittaker, Honor Kneafsey, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney
Watch Wolfwalkers online in the UK: Apple TV+
Read our interview with directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart here.
“The woods are getting smaller every day,” muses Mebh (Eva Whittaker) early on in Wolfwalkers, the latest animation from Cartoon Saloon. It sets the stage for a fable that weaves urgent environmental concerns and a timeless tale of friendship into something truly magical.
Just over a decade after Cartoon Saloon’s first feature film, The Secret of Kells, the film’s wonderful simplicity belies a beautifully complex mythology. It takes us back to the 17th century, when the city of Kilkenny is occupied by Oliver Cromwell’s forces. At their head is the Lord Protector (a brilliantly nasty Simon McBurney), who is determined to “tame” the wild country, not to mention the locals – starting with the wolves running through the woods around the town.
He hires local resident Bill (an impeccably warm Sean Bean) as a hunter to track them down, and his daughter, Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), is all too keen to join him on the prowl. But when she crosses paths with a wolfwalker, she finds her perception of things turned on its head. Wolfwalkers, so the legends go, are part-human, part-wolf, spending their days as humans with a psychic link to their lupine cousins, and their nights, while asleep, roaming the land with fangs and a tail.
The girl, of course, is Mebh, and the two start out as sworn enemies. But the more time they spend together, the more those barriers break down and a new bridge is formed in its place, and the young women find enough shared experiences for Robyn to view the landscape through Mebh’s eyes. Watching Robyn and Mebh transform – from suspicion to solidarity – is a delightful, heartwarming sight, and the compassionate vocal turns from Kneafsey and Whittaker are echoed by the stunning visuals; while the humans and Kilkenny are depicted as geometric and sharp, channelling old-fashioned woodblock etchings, the wolves and their allies are captured with a curvy, spiralling wonder, full of vibrant tones and the best hair you’ve seen in an animated film since Brave.
There’s something of that Pixar gem in this similarly intimate tale of caring parents and defiant, independent children, fused with How to Train Your Dragon’s morals of tolerance and understanding plus The Tale of Princess Kaguya’s scratchy, impressionistic hand-drawn illustrations. But at Wolfwalkers’ heart is a pure message of compassion and empathy that can be traced all the way back to The Fox and the Hound, and Cartoon Saloon’s original, distinctive blending of political tensions, human feelings and environmental responsibility is all its own.
Co-directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart and screenwriter Will Collins have crafted something gorgeous here, a fairytale blazing with caution about the threat humans pose to nature, not the other way round. Just a few minutes spent seeing everything through the movie’s “wolf-vision”, which mutes the manmade environment and captures smells and sounds with jaw-dropping bursts of colour, is enough to change anyone’s perspective on the world. The woods are getting smaller, but Cartoon Saloon’s legacy is only getting bigger.
Wolfwalkers is available on Apple TV+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, with a seven-day free trial. For more information on Apple TV+ and how to get it, click here.