Of the films that I booked to see at this years London Film Festival, this was the one I was looking forward to the most. I am a massive fan of the films of Cartoon Saloon and this looked like another work of brilliance from them and I was not disappointed. This is right up there with Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner as another work of beauty from Cartoon Saloon.
Taking place in Kilkenny in 1650, the film follows Robyn Goodfellowe, the daughter of a wolf hunter brought over from England by Oliver Cromwell to clear the woods of wolves so they can be cut down to create agricultural land. After going into the woods, Robyn comes across Mebh, a girl who ends up being a Wolfwalker, someone who is human when awake but a wolf when asleep, whose mum has gone missing. Robyn and Mebh end up becoming close friends, but matters are complicated when Robyn finds herself becoming a Wolfwalker herself, and puts her at risk of being hunted by her dad. In the same way that Song of the Sea looked at traditional Irish folklore, here directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart and writer Will Collins have turned their imaginations towards werewolf mythology, but in a more gentle way than most other werewolf media. Whereas other media about werewolves tends to have an allegory for illness at the centre, here being a wolfwalker is a freeing experience, allowing someone to truly connect and see the natural world in a way that you cannot when human. This lies at the heart of the human v. nature conflict of the film and how the actions of people like Cromwell destroy the natural world for political gain, this also bringing in a little element of showing how the Irish population were treated under Cromwell, although this element is more subtextual. This element of the film is also shown through the regimented nature of life in Kilkenny compared to the freedom of the woods, this also reflecting the gender roles that Robyn is forced into by the political system and how punishment is inflicted on those who go outside of a defined structure. What gives the film its heart though is the friendship between Robyn and Mebh. The writing for when the two interact with each other creates a touching and believable friendship that creates a strong emotional core to the film and ends up making this a very touching film.
The emotional core is aided by strong performances from the cast. Honor Kneafsey as Robyn is great at showing her own confidence in her skills as a hunter at first, along with her frustration over the role she’s been assigned in the world and as the film goes on and we see how her new situation as a wolfwalker affects her, Kneafsey shows Robyn’s fear over everything effectively. Eva Whittaker as Mebh meanwhile is great at showing the more carefree spirit of the character, but also the vulnerability she feels over her mum being missing. The chemistry that Kneafsey and Whittaker have with other is excellent and really helps to sell the friendship between the two of them. Sean Bean as Robyn’s dad, Bill Goodfellowe, meanwhile is strong. There’s a tenderness that Bean brings to the role showing the love he has for his daughter but also the fear over Robyn being in danger and what could happen in their situation if he doesn’t follow Cromwell. Simon McBurney as Crowell gives a quietly menacing performance, showing the power that Cromwell has over the people and his own fanaticism, creating an effective antagonist, whilst Maria Doyle Kennedy and Tommy Tiernan make an effective impression in their roles.
As is to be expected of a Cartoon Saloon film, the animation is exceptional. Every frame of the film oozes with life and character, the sheer detail in the backgrounds creating some truly beautiful moments of film. The design helps to create a contrast between the more vibrant and colourful woods and the regimented and closed off Kilkenny. This even extends into the character animation with Mebh moving almost like a flame when in human form whilst those working in Kilkenny move pretty much identically and with no real life to them. This also works in creating character development for Robyn through the different levels of expressiveness in the animation on her as the film goes on. The style of the film also works in creating a contrast between wolf and human, with the scenes where we see the world through wolves eyes being more focused on shadow and silhouette and having more of a charcoal feel to the outlines, with Mebh having some of these elements in her human form showing her animal nature well. The use of colour throughout the film is great, adding to the character of the area, with Kilkenny being mostly grey, the woods having this autumnal feel to them, and scenes of fire at the end of the film having this harsh, angry red to show the threat of fire and Cromwell’s army. The music as well has this strong emotional weight to the film, especially when Robyn and Mebh first interact with each other as wolves with Aurora’s Running With The Wolves playing, working well with the beautiful animation to create a strong emotional resonance to the film.
Overall, Wolfwalkers is a stunning piece of work, a beautiful piece of animation and continues the mix of emotional depth and animation excellence that I’ve come to expect from Cartoon Saloon.
My Rating: 5/5