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Non-Review Review: Wolfwalkers

Wolfwalkers is a stunningly beautiful piece of animation.

Of course, that almost goes without saying. Cartoon Saloon remain one of the most consistent animation houses in the world today, steadily building a reputation among animation aficionados that might invite comparisons to other artisanal studios like Ghibli or even Pixar; their previous three feature films all received Oscar nominations, and Wolfwalkers itself seems sure to earn its place among this year’s nominees.

Packed full of excitement.

Still, there’s an admirable ambition to Wolfwalkers, a sense that the studio is not merely resting on its laurels and is instead pushing itself forward. Wolfwalkers is perhaps the most technically accomplished animation that Cartoon Saloon have produced to date, applying all of the studio’s key strengths and throwing some playful experimental elements into the mix. Wolfwalkers retains the stylised Celtic aesthetic that informed both The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, but also throws in elements with a more international flavour. The results are breathtaking.

While the film suffers slightly in narrative terms, particularly in contrast to the studio’s work on The Breadwinner, it is a consistently and breathtakingly beautiful work.

While The Breadwinner found Cartoon Saloon venturing beyond the familiar Irish settings of The Secret of Kills and Song of the Sea, Wolfwalkers brings the studio back home. Indeed, Wolfwalkers is explicitly set against the backdrop of the studio’s home in Kilkenny, in contrast to the anonymous town modeled on Kilkenny that featured in Song of the Sea. There is a sense of homecoming to all this. While The Breadwinner was set very firmly and very consciously against the backdrop of the Middle East, Wolfwalkers is explicitly rooted at the intersection of Irish history and folklore.

The story focuses on a young British girl named Robyn, who has moved to Kilkenny with her father as part of the efforts by the Lord Protector to bring the region to heal. “We’ll tame this land,” her father promises. The euphemism “tame” comes up repeatedly over the course of Wolfwalkers, the metaphor woven into the film’s basic premise of the British soldiers who hunted wolves through the Irish wilderness. The colonial implications are obvious, with the Lord Protector positioning himself as a civilising force upon the Irish people.

No time forest.

Wolfwalkers touches on a number of interesting and compelling ideas, particularly the legacy of colonialism and the way in which imperial forces often seek to destroy a culture’s identity as much as to dismantle its political infrastructure. The removal of the forests and the hunting of the wolves plays as a family-friendly allegory for something much more insidious and unsettling, particularly as it plays out with the Lord Protector’s desire to tame and domesticate a feral wolf mother. “What can’t be tamed will be destroyed,” the Lord Protector vows.

That said, there is a slight sense that Wolfwalkers frames its exploration of colonialism a little too abstractly. The Breadwinner was a much more explicit meditation on the horror of a culture being erased and wiped out. Wolfwalkers operates at a greater remove. The character identified explicitly as “the Lord Protector” is clearly meant to be Oliver Cromwell based on everything from his characterisation to the minimal historical context provided, but his name is never mentioned. If anything, Wolfwalkers plays down the horrors of British colonialism in Ireland.

Cromwell that end’s well.

However, that might just reflect the interests of Cartoon Saloon. Perhaps reflecting its Irish setting, Wolfwalkers is much closer to The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea than to The Breadwinner, and its thematic focus reflects that. Like The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, Wolfwalkers is built on the idea of the out-of-balance relationship between mankind and nature. It is also fascinated with how that divide between humanity and the larger world can lead to characters feeling disconnected from their own heritage and their own folklore.

When the British try to chop down the forests around Kilkenny, they find themselves at odds with the local wildlife that appear to be led by supernatural forces known as “Wolfwalkers.” As woodcutter named Sean Óg tries to warn the foreigners, “Everyone knows you can’t be cutting down their woods. If you do, they’ll get you. Sure that’s the deal.” He explains the delicate balance that has long existed between the Irish people and the natural world. “Saint Patrick made it with the old Pagans, and you’re breakin’ it. You eejits.” Life is thrown out of balance.

Bird of preyed.

There is something heartening in this idea of balance, and it is reflected in the studio’s animation style. While Wolfwalkers demonstrates the potential of computer-generated animation to enhance and enrich the house style, allowing for complicated set-ups that would be difficult to render in traditional hand-drawn style, the two-dimensional style of Wolfwalkers handily underscores this ideal of balance and symmetry. Everything in Wolfwalkers is composed of smooth lines and clear arcs, as if designed to fit together perfectly if approach from the right angle.

Indeed, it’s notable how the studio chooses to animate the creatures that inhabit this world. The individual creatures are jaw-droppingly beautiful, but somehow become even more impressive when they move in packs. When Robyn wanders into the woods and finds herself menaced by a large group of wolves operating at the command of a local “Wolfwalker”, the creatures seem to move like a single entity, rendered like a long flowing cloak stretching out behind the pack leader.

Things are looking up.

That said, there are some minor issues with the narrative of Wolfwalkers. Structurally, the film tries to do too much. Its story is simple and archetypal, but it moves very quickly from one type of story to another; the tonal shifts can be quite jarring, and it often feels like Wolfwalkers has barely settled into one version of itself before switching gears into another type of story altogether. The script manages its themes well enough that this never becomes too distracting or disorienting, but it is occasionally disjointed.

However, there is an awkward sense that the studio has perhaps taken too many cues from American animated storytelling. Wolfwalkers often seems to draw from the template of Disney and Pixar. There is a stretch in the middle that recalls Disney animated films like Brave or The Princess and the Frog. During a sequence in which the villainous Lord Protector tries to whip the villagers into a frenzy, one member of the crowd can be heard to shout, “Kill the Beast!”

“You’d have to be barking mad to go hunting for wolves.”

The ultimate fate of the Lord Protector seems to have been lifted directly from a Disney film – whether Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, The Great Mouse Detective or The Rescuers Down Under. It is a surprisingly cutesy conclusion to a story that seems like it might be building to something a bit less conventionally family-friendly. There are other aspects of the film that also suggest a more commercial flavour designed to appeal to international audiences, including a montage set to a triumph English-language ballad.

These elements undermine Wolfwalkers, and strip away a little of what made the output of Cartoon Saloon unique and distinctive in favour of a more standardised and conventional language of children-friendly international animation. It is a shame, because Wolfwalkers actually imports some interesting and some bold ideas from other animation studios, resulting in some genuinely ambitious and experimental animated storytelling.

Den danger.

While Wolfwalkers retains the classic Celtic-influenced style that defined The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, it allows itself to be a little more playful in terms of actually animating its action. Wolfwalkers employs a more dynamic and visceral approach to storytelling, seeming to draw from the heightened aesthetic of Japanese animation in using elements like split-screen, clashes, and the manipulation of the aspect ratio to pace and control the audience’s understanding of the action.

There are times when Wolfwalkers almost seems like a comic book brought to life. There are other moments when the film seems to draw heavily from the animated style of Genndy Tartakovsky. These aspects of Wolfwalkers are fresh and exciting. Given that this is a movie about the wild and the wilderness, it makes sense that the studio should adopt an approach that favours dynamism and energy. It’s breathtaking to look at, and it demonstrates that hybridisation of style can be a beautiful thing; that the house style of Cartoon Saloon is flexible and can be complimented.

Wolfwalkers is perhaps a little too simple in its storytelling, and a little too conventional in some of its choices. However, it is a visually striking and ambitious piece of animation that deserves to be seen.

One Response

  1. What is it with Celtic mythology making for great animated films? More please.

    Yeah, it doesn’t have the same impact as “The Breadwinner”, but it is a definite success for Cartoon Saloon. Again. The animation alone was brilliant, but the story also held together. All in all, this outshined Pixar’s two efforts this year for me.

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