It’s difficult to tell if Wolfwalkers will be the film that carries Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon over into real mainstream success, especially given the current situation affecting cinemas. It’s presence on Apple TV+ will pipe it directly into the homes of millions of subscribers around the world, although tracking digital success is far from easy. But what is clear is that four films in the studio are in a similar vein of form seen in the early days of Aardman, Disney, Pixar and Laika, their latest once again delivering fun, charm and plenty of heart.
Wolfwalkers follows on from the likes of The Secret of Kells and the beautiful Song of the Sea, blending together Irish folklore, myth and history. This time it ties together England’s colonisation of Ireland by the brutal Oliver Cromwell (voiced by Simon McBurney) and the threat of extinction faced by wild wolves in the 17th century (they were eventually hunted into extinction in the last 1700s) to tell an enchanting story of two young girls and their respective parents, pitting the metaphorical wolves against the tyrannical Cromwell.
The wolves that live on the edge of Kilkenny could be also be seen as representing the last remaining fighters who refused to cow to the English invasion in the aftermath of the Irish Rebellion. A puritan community live within the boundary of Cromwell’s castle grounds, where free-spirited Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) lives with father Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) and her pet hawk, Merlin. Bill is an experienced hunter tasked with killing the wolves and Robyn is eager to escape slavish scullery duties to prove her worth out in the wild.
While the historical political subtext is clear, screenwriter Will Collins’ script never forgets this is a kid’s film first and foremost. The pacing is kept snappy, the plot simple and the dialogue easy to engage with, and the voice-acting brings emotional depth to the characters. We see how Robyn’s eagerness indirectly causes problems for her father as she makes friends with the red-haired firebrand Mebh (Eva Whittaker) deep in the woods. The problem being, Mebh is a wolfwalker, a protector of the local pack, which means Robyn is bound to come into direct conflict with her father sooner rather than later.
Robyn’s relationship with her father is the narrative heartbeat, showing how youthful vigour can break beyond boundaries imposed by fearful parents to open up new possibilities, but also cause new unexpected problems that inexperience is unable to resolve. Likewise, the ‘parents know best’ mantra that forgets what it’s like to be young and adventurous is seen in Bean’s caring but over-protective father, believing his actions are right but only causing more harm in the process. Bean’s warm Sheffield accent is a natural fit for the character and you’d expect an actor of his experience to deliver to the standard he does. But it’s the much younger Kneafsey and Whittaker who belie their younger years to line their character's friendship and parental relationships with real emotional meaning.
Co-directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart and their animation team once again employ eye-catching Celtic-style designs to create their world, the beautiful 2D tapestries of the city and surrounding woodland making it look all the more dimensional. To further complement the exceptional voice work, rough free-form outlines sometimes appear beyond the defined borders of the characters, further expressing their emotion and movement without ever feeling messy, but rather these simple touches establish the animation as something that is almost within reach on-screen..
Composer Bruno Coulais returns to score Robyn’s and Mebh’s adventure, working with Irish folk band Kila to create an authentic and affecting musical backdrop. They find the groove of the story beats to match the scaling heights of joy, pain and hope, finding its peak at exactly the right moments. What matters most is not the originality of the plot – which as a kid’s film Wolfwalkers doesn’t need to provide – but how the cogs and wheels clink together to make it all work. There’s innovation in the design work anyway, but Cartoon Saloon embrace the predictability so well that even though you know how things will end, it still feels like a surprise when it does happen, which is a skill all in itself.
Cartoon Saloon understand that strong storytelling is the cornerstone of all great animation, whether it only lasts for a few minutes or runs at feature length. Every element of Wolfwalkers feels special and it’s wonderful to watch the growth of a relatively new animation studio, especially one that continues to produce such memorable pieces of work. This is one for the adults as much as the kids and will bring a touch of magic into your home for 100 delightful minutes.
Wolfwalkers is available worldwide on Apple TV+ from December 11.
Dir: Ross Stewart, Tomm Moore | Cast: Eva Whittaker, Honor Kneafsey, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney | Writers: Jericca Cleland (story and script consultant), Ross Stewart (story), Tomm Moore (story), Will Collins (screenplay)