Wolfwalkers might be one of the best-animated movies of the 2020s. Sure this decade has barely begun, but this whimsical film is absolutely stunning.
I adore Cartoon Saloon’s movies. Like Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells – Wolfwalkers is a film whose foundation lies in Irish mythology, which doesn’t get enough attention in the media. The focus, in this film, is on wolfwalkers – people who turn into wolves when they sleep and who can communicate with canines. Kinda like a werewolf but without the painful transformation, losing your humanity and lust for human flesh.
So, a cooler, better version of our modern-day werewolf.
Robyn Goodefellow and her father Bill moved to Ireland from England in 1650. Naturally, the pair aren’t quite welcomed by the Irish. Bill was hired to rid the surrounding woods of wolves by Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.
Robyn, frustrated with all the rules of Kilkenny, escapes to the woods. While trying to prove herself as a hunter, Robyn meets Mebh, a rowdy red-haired little girl who heals her hunting falcon. And bites her.
This turns Robyn into a wolfwalker – and the two then must work together to find Mebh’s mother, Moll, who is unable to return to her body and delay the destruction of the woods to give the pack enough time to escape.
The movie is beautifully drawn and full of themes of nature, acceptance, friendship, and family. The tone goes between playful and mournful, and though the pacing a little uneven at times, it works well with the fairy tale and mythological like nature of the setting.
It is an absolute delight – but I heavily recommend having some tissues on hand.
An Art Style Like No Other
Cartoon Saloon always has had a wonderful, Ghibli-like style. It’s unique, and it’s all hand-drawn – each film has its own style while maintaining the same geometric, highly detailed background. But this film changes that up a little.
This is their first film that plants a firm line between the “real” world and the “magical” world. The real world is geometric, pointy, with lots of squares and triangles like that of the previous films. The color palette is rather dull – it’s all mundane.
In the woods, the colors become more vibrant and the shapes become rounder and more roughly sketched. The sketches become even rougher when the characters turn into wolves, and it looks like an animation that wasn’t fully finished.
But it works.
It works really well.
It’s rough, primal. But also oddly beautiful and natural.
Robyn is a lot of straight lines and is kind of square, and she doesn’t have nearly as much sketch to her character until she goes into the woods. The round, rough, and tumble Mebh, who has leaves and sticks in her huge hair remains that way no matter if she’s in the town or woods, showing how separated she is from society.
When the characters are in the woods – the backgrounds too, are less angular than they normally are in the studio’s films but are just as detailed, with a mystical aura to them.
It looks like it came straight out of a fairy tale.
And then the style changes again when the characters are in wolf mode. We see from their perspective – the backgrounds are now gray – with only different scents having color. And I love how they sketch the outlines of the humans who are in wolf form, allowing the characters to identify each other.
It’s a great style change that they really didn’t have to do but did anyway, and it works well
It’s such a visual treat – that even if the story wasn’t as great as it was, it would still be worth it.
Being an Outsider
A huge theme of the movie is about trying to find “your people.” Being English, Robyn and her father aren’t welcome in Ireland – and to set her apart further, she wants to join her father on his hunts. She’s not only a child, which means she can’t travel beyond the gates, but she’s also a girl which means, being stuck doing chores at home or working as a scullery maid.
Mebh is perfectly content just swiping bread and pastries from the townies and living in the woods. She doesn’t seem to hate them, at first, but doesn’t ever take the time to try and understand them.
But she doesn’t reject Robyn’s friendship when after Mebh accidentally turns her into a Wolfwalker. Instead, she seems ecstatic to have a friend. And the two quickly bond.
Their friendship and sisterhood are the glue that holds the movie together. While the movie displays their bond as sisterly or Platonic love, the idea that the two have crushes on each other also fits.
Undoubtedly, the hint that Robyn may be attracted to girls only separates her further from her traditional community – and her fright of ‘coming out’ as a Wolfwalker because she knows her dad will kill her is a good parallel to being gay at that time,
Mebh, of course, doesn’t hold that same stigma of being an outsider to the world of man, and Christianity. Though in the end, it’s implied Bill, and Mebh’s mom, Moll become a couple – that doesn’t mean the girls couldn’t be either, especially since Robyn gifts Mebh a flower for her hair and Bill does the same for Moll.
The gesture could easily be seen as a romantic one.
At the beginning of the film, Mebh and her mom have a huge family – the wolf pack with whom they can communicate with.
Robyn and her dad don’t have a family or community. They don’t have anyone but each other. Even though they’re all forced to leave the town in the end, and eventually wolves will be wiped out in Ireland in a hundred or so years- the four now have each other and that’s enough.
They can live out the remainder of their lives as Wolfwalkers in relative peace on the road. And there’s always the possibility they could establish a new home either in or outside of Ireland.
Relationships: Big and Small
The relationships in this movie feel real.
The lead girls have this amazing chemistry with each other, that feels realistic and deep. Friendships form quickly when you’re young, especially if you’re alone, and I can actually buy that these girls bonded so quickly.
It feels like they genuinely do care about each other, even if they only knew each other for a few days.
Even more importantly the relationships the girls have with their respective parents also feels genuine.
So often in movies, the conflict between parent and child feels forced. Usually, the parent is being totally unreasonable or the kid is just a total brat. Here, Bill is reasonable in his desire to keep Robyn home. He presumably lost his wife recently, and they’re not exactly welcome in their new home.
And Robyn just wants to be free, to hunt, to play, and not be trapped in a house all day. And I think we all understand that feeling. And he never dissuades her from giving up her hobbies completely.
And there’s Mebh and her mom. The two are very, very close. And Mebh is appropriately worried when her mom won’t return, and when she acts irrationally, wanting to attack the town to get her mom back…I get it. She’s 10 at most and doesn’t want her mom to die. She doesn’t have a complete understanding of the consequences.
I’m glad they don’t have a fake miscommunication subplot that takes up half the movie. I mean, Robyn does lie and pushes Mebh away, but it’s actually understandable why this happens and is resolved fairly quickly.
When Moll is dying – it doesn’t feel like they’re trying to milk the emotions. Even though we don’t know her well, we care enough about Mebh to feel her grief. The voice acting at this part also really sells it.
The emotional moments don’t just feel like they’re there to be story beats. They feel natural. They belong. And they’re done so well.
Risks not Taken
Even though the ending is satisfying, and I thought it worked well – it’s odd to see such a happy ending, with so little sacrifice made in the end. It just hit…differently.
The Wolfwalker family had to give their home and presumably their ancestral land, and they all now run the risk of being hunted to extinction. But I don’t think Mebh’s mother should have died. I do think that having Bill die, would have added something – especially if he died trying to save his daughter.
Because I don’t exactly know how he survived when his human body was injured in his wolf state. But that’s honestly a fairly minor nitpick. And I like how Mebh’s mother, surviving didn’t feel like a cop-out – that was there to raise some non-existent takes. It took a lot of work to get her to heal, it wasn’t easy.
But I guess I still feel like I’m missing that one piece that is so prevalent in Cartoon Saloon’s other films where the folklore world needs to disappear. The ending isn’t bittersweet, but rather genuinely joyous.
The myths survive, and it’s stronger than before. Sure, if you know your history, you know that the wolves WILL eventually disappear and if you’ve seen the other movies, you know eventually all myths will leave – but those aren’t for a long time.
It’s still bittersweet – but certainly less so than usual. Undoubtedly, the town of Kilkenny will still be under British rule – but there’s not a lot of focus on that.
The story makes sense and has good characters. But it still feels like it’s missing something, but what it’s missing I don’t know. Maybe it’s because the ending doesn’t quite feel like an ending, but rather more of a beginning. There are so many more adventures these girls can go on.
have and I want to see their relationship grow. I need to see more of these wolfgirls and where their journey takes them and how they still adjust to being sisters.
Brendan leaves the world of fairy tales behind in The Secret of Kells and at the end of Song of the Sea – all the mythological creatures, aside from Saroise -go away -and go to Tir Na Og. In this film, there are now four wolf-walkers instead of two and even though they’re the last ones – they have each other.
Sure they’ll never fit into human society ever again but that doesn’t matter. They have a family.
The other films had a more definitive ending for their tales.
And that’s the scoop.
Year of release: 2020
Length: 103 minutes
Directors: Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart
Producers: Paul Young, Nora Twomey, Tomm Moore, Stéphan Roelants
Screenplay by: Will Collins
Story by: Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart