Cartoon Saloon’s celebration of Irish folklore is a visual stunner, gorgeously animated and popping with colour, its characters spilling from the restraints of their outlines. But it’s handcrafted magic that the story can’t quite match up to consistently.
In theory, Wolfwalkers is a film right in my sweet spot. A hand-drawn beauty steeped in mythology, a melding of fantasy and history, i.e. everything that I love. And yet it didn’t connect on the level I’d anticipated it to. Which possibly says as much of my expectations as it does of the film itself, although with the type of roll Kilkenny based animation studio Cartoon Saloon has been on (with four Academy Award nominations to date), perhaps it’s reasonable for expectations to be high.
And when it comes to visual craft, there’s so much to adore here. Wolfwalkers‘ characters are vibrantly and expressively realised, and their world – the English occupied Irish town of Kilkenny and its surrounding forest – provides a feast of colour. It’s a place that it’s easy to believe could be home to the fantastical. Here we meet young girl Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) and her hunter father Bill (Sean Bean), the latter of whom is under orders from England’s villainous Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) to rid the town’s forests of the wolves that inhabit them.
It’s with the determined Robyn (who bears much in common with Merida from Pixar’s Brave), the film’s heroine, that we explore the inner sanctum of the forest and discover the Wolfwalkers, a tribe of humans that can shift into wolf form. Whilst stealing away into the woods, eager as she is to follow in her father’s footsteps, Robyn quickly meets her match in Wolfwalker youngling Mebh (Eva Whittaker), whose bite alters the course of her life for good; turning her into a wolf and placing her on a collision course with the Lord Protector.
It’s in this key sequence – Robyn’s transformation, her embracing the magical world – that this Irish film, so deeply rooted in the country’s heritage, opts to utilise Norwegian artist Aurora’s song ‘Running With the Wolves’ for its montage music. An admitted banger, yet just far too on the nose lyrically. More importantly though is how out of keeping it is not just with the heavy focus on Irish culture, but also with the haunting score from Bruno Coulais and Irish band Kíla that backs the rest of the film. As a result, this vital scene, central to the plot as it is, feels flat. Which in isolation might not be much of an issue, but it’s a flatness which I felt off and on throughout the entire opening act as the film finds its footing, unhelped as well by sound design which in comparison to the visuals feels sparse. It’s once Robyn’s transformation is complete that Wolfwalkers unshackles itself and truly sparks into life. I just couldn’t help but wish that it allowed the magic to bubble over sooner, because once it does, it’s as enchanting as any animation you’re likely to see this year.
Rating (out of 5):
Wolfwalkers was part of the programme at the BFI London Film Festival 2020.