At times I think that animation is the most misunderstood genre. To even call it a genre may be a mischaracterization. The medium has been so monopolized by Disney’s singular vision of adventure seeking princesses and peasants that more mature fare gets overlooked. Animated in the playful style of a children’s picture book and focusing on two girls who can magically transform into wolves, Wolfwalkers may not seem like grown-up cinema, but appearances can be deceiving.
Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) is a fiery kid. She spends her days on menial chores while her widowed father Bill (Sean Bean) stalks the woods outside Kilkenny Ireland, hunting their lupine inhabitants. The pair are outsiders, Englishmen brought in by the occupying English regime. The housework expected of her bores Robyn and the town around her feels more like a prison. What she’d really like is to be a hunter like her dad.
Just like her new home, Robyn is trapped. She has no opportunity to be herself under the burden of her father’s expectations, much in the way that the Irish have been repressed by their colonizers from the east. It’s no wonder that when she finally gets outside Robyn is drawn to Mebh (Eva Whitaker), a feral young girl and the pack of wolves seemingly under her control.
Oppression is happening on multiple levels in Wolfwalkers. The English rule over Kilkenny mercilessly and while Robyn is being held back from her great potential, she’s also perpetuating that imposition onto the creatures she hunts. Conquest begets conquest. It isn’t until she spends some time in the shoes (paws?) of Mebh’s pack that Robyn comes to understand how her actions have imperiled them. It’s the first time she feels truly alive.
Cartoon Saloon, the studio behind Wolfwalkers, has been down this road before. Ambitious girls pushing back against a society that marginalizes them is also at the core of 2017’s The Breadwinner. With Wolfwalkers though, the up and coming Irish studio has turned that idea into revelation. Freedom can’t be fully realized while it is being repressed at any level.
It’s a powerful moral at the center of beautifully actualized film. The version I saw during AFI Fest had some sound mixing issues that made the dialogue tough to decipher, but even that couldn’t take away from the visual splendor of Wolfwalkers. While most of the animation world has gone all in on 3D, Cartoon Saloon has doubled down on traditional, hand drawn style. The result is an incredibly whimsical aesthetic tailored precisely to the film’s fantasy story.
Whether you’re looking for deep storytelling or just want to have a blast watching a fun, beautiful piece of animation, Wolfwalkers has something for everyone and should be a strong contender for Best Animated Feature at the 2021 Oscars. 9/10
Wolfwalkers will release in theaters November 13th and will land on Apple TV+ December 11th