Note: The writer of this review watched Wolfwalkers from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
Wolfwalkers, the new animated movie from the makers of the Oscar-nominated The Secret Of Kells, is a vibrant and expressive fantasy, magical and unyoked to realism without pulling any punches about the destructive folly of manifest destiny. It’s singular, even as it nestles nicely with a philosophical big sister, Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke. And its tumultuous heart beats with the deep-seated unease coloring everything around us right now.
Mourning the death of her mother, the young Robyn Goodfellowe (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) has traveled from England to Kilkenny, Ireland with her hunter father, Bill (Sean Bean, steadfast but harrowed), and bird friend Merlyn. Here, she bristles against the restrictions put upon the people by the nefarious Lord Protector (Simon McBurney). As in The Secret Of Kells and Song Of The Sea, co-director Tomm Moore’s previous movies with Cartoon Saloon, the artwork and design philosophy of every aspect of the film are breathtaking, utilizing traditional hand-drawn 2D animation to tap into the subconscious. This is a textured and vibrant world, all woodcuts and watercolors.
Robyn’s destiny does not lie in the scullery or domestic life. She wants to hunt and have adventures, and her instincts lead her to uncover something mysterious and magical in the woods beyond Lord Protector’s walls: a pack of wolves, the bane of the town, who flow over the land like a wave of furry water but first appear as disembodied eyes in a sea of deepest shadow. It takes a bite from the young wolfwalker Mebh (voiced by Eva Whittaker), who seems born from the visual DNA of the Tasmanian Devil and a Rider-Waite tarot deck, to transform Robyn’s body and expand her mind. “A wolf when [asleep], a girl when awake,” she has to use her new hybridized identity to mediate between the tribe of wolves and the people of Kilkenny, driven by Lord Protector to burn down the forest itself and bend the world to his will.
It’s timeless, the battle between destructive human impulses and the systems that govern nature. Wolfwalkers at no point soft-pedals the dangers of Kilkenny: Manmade horrors like religious zealotry and slash-and-burn farming are no less threatening than tooth or claw or the potential of falling long distances onto spiky rocks. But beyond the scares, it’s also deeply satisfying the way that Robyn, exploring the world in wolf form, can see things via smell—a power of transcendent synesthesia that elevates the film’s visual palate to a whole other level. Kneafsey delivers an endearing vocal performance as Robyn, pulling together the film’s narrative and allegorical threads in service of a story that draws on a rich cinematic history without cribbing from it.
Given the PG rating, a happy ending may seem like a foregone conclusion. But Moore and his co-director, Ross Stewart, know how to keep the audience on uncertain footing, even as narrative t’s get crossed and i’s get dotted. Flesh and humanity aren’t necessarily absolutes, and 17th-century living means nobody can be considered completely safe. Every upsetting turn, however, feels justified by where the film ultimately lands. After all, there’s nothing quite as transporting—and sometimes transformative—as a work of animation that devotes itself to shaking up your reality.