Animation has always held a special place in my heart and, despite my age, I always find myself sucked in when I see something hand drawn. As the industry moves further away from the medium, it is hard to find truly unique works of animation—that’s not to say they’re not out there, but for every Klaus, or Into the Spiderverse; there is amyriad of CGI, pop-culture reference-filled shlock that fills most screens these days.
This is why Kilkenny based Cartoon Saloon is such a rare breed. Known for such films as: The Secret of Kells, and Song of the Sea; they have a style all their own—drawing on myth and legend to craft works that are as engaging as they are stunning to look at. At TIFF 2020, their latest film: Wolfwalkers, delivered on past promise by offering up a stunning deep and heartfelt take on Celtic folklore, and is a truly special film that deserves your attention.
Wolfwalkers takes places under the specter of British colonization in Ireland during 1650. With the city slowly expanding, moving into the surrounding forests, the people of the area are facing more wolf attacks. Hunter Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) and daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) are here from England to try to put an end to the wolves. Both are outsiders in a new land, and are just trying to find a place for themselves, despite the city they now live wanting nothing to do with the British or either of the Goodfellowe family.
As the whispers of “Wolfwalkers,” finding their way to the town; fear of the woods and wolves has reached a fever pitch, keeping Goodfellowe very busy with his duties. With her father distracted by his work, and ostracized by the local kids for not fitting in, Robyn finds herself exploring and eventually finds herself face to face with Mebh (Eva Whittaker), one of the mythical Wolfwalkers. Human while awake, and wolf when she sleeps, Mabh is very different from Robyn, yet the two find a bond as they explore the woods, and find more about each other’s culture.
Wolfwalkers manages a blend of deep concepts, with levels of wonder and fun rarely seen in modern animation. Similar in tone to many of the films from Studio Ghibli, Cartoon Saloon has made a film that both adults and children can get sucked into, without the movie feeling like it is pandering to either audience. With authentic characters, a story filled with nuance and depth, and the passion of the studio imbued within every frame on screen, Wolfwalkers is something very unlike the modern animated films currently on offer.
Speaking of style, Wolfwalkers is one of the most stunning films I have seen in years. Cartoon Saloon have crafted a movie that feels like a tapestry come to life—with every character having a look all their own. From the menacing nature of the wolves, to the loving way the characters emote giving a sense of purpose, depth and care for one another. It is so easy to forget the time and effort that must have gone into each frame of animation. With the film balancing between intense moments of dread and tension, to childlike wonder with it all working, giving the audience the full range of emotion and depth rarely seen in modern children cinema.
At 105 minutes, Wolfwalkers could have been a slog, especially for a kids’ movie, yet it never drags, with the spacing and overall flow of the film working perfectly to craft the story the studio was trying to tell. This is a film that washes over you from minute one, and does not let go until the credits roll. While I am a fan of the 90-minute movie, especially when targeting kids, something about this film works, with it feeling tight, exciting and overall engaging from beginning to end. Wolfwalkers is a stand out film from TIFF and easily one of the best animation films of this year. It manages a deep, complex fable, while offering enough wonder to keep even the youngest viewer excited, all wrapped in a visually breathtaking package. If you are a fan of animation, and want to experience something rarely seen in modern animation, seek out Wolfwalkers, you won’t be disappointed.