Apple TV+ tapped acclaimed directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart for 'Wolfwalkers', the streaming service's first foray into prestige animation. But it isn't the first rodeo for Cartoon Saloon, the Irish animation studio that produced the film. 'The Secret of Kells' and 'Song of the Sea' were both nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, as was Nora Twomey's 'The Breadwinner'.
In 1650, mourning the death of her mother, young Robyn Goodfellowe (voiced by Honor Kneafsey, TV's 'Crooked House') travels from England to Kilkenny, Ireland with her hunter father, Bill (Sean Bean, 'Dark River', 'Possessor'), and bird friend Merlyn. Here, she bristles against the restrictions put upon the people by the nefarious Lord Protector (Simon McBurney, 'Allied') and is generally made to feel unwelcome by the Irish.
Robyn 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 named Mebh (some standout voice acting by Eva Whittaker), to give Robyn the ability to become "a wolf when [asleep], a girl when awake". The two girls must work together to find Mebh's mother, Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy, 'Sing Street', 'The Conjuring 2'), who is trapped in her wolf form and unable to return to her body after being captured by the Lord Protector.
'Wolfwalkers' is full of themes of nature, acceptance, friendship, and family. The tone oscillates between playful and mournful, and though the pacing a little uneven at times, it works well with the fairytale-like nature of the setting. As with 'Song of the Sea' and 'The Secret of Kells', this a film whose foundation lies in Irish mythology. The focus here is on the titular Wolfwalkers - people who turn into wolves when they sleep and who can communicate with canines. They are sort of like werewolves but without the painful transformation, loss of humanity and hunger for human flesh.
The similarities to 'Princess Mononoke' are obvious, but a huge theme of the movie is about trying to find "your people", which makes the film more like 'How to Train Your Dragon' with wolves. Not only is Robyn a foreigner in Ireland, she's also a child, which means she can't travel beyond the town gates, and female, which means working as a scullery maid.
The lead girls share an amazing chemistry with each other that feels realistic. Friendships form quickly when you are young, especially if you are alone, and I can actually buy that these girls bonded so quickly. Robyn's sisterhood with Mebh is the glue that holds the movie together. While the movie displays their bond as platonic love, the idea that the two have crushes on each other also fits. The implication that Robyn may be attracted to girls only separates her further from her traditional community, leading to her fear of "coming out" as a Wolfwalker, because she knows her dad will kill her.
The evident care with which Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart depict the texture of a clump of grass or a tree is a subtle but persistent reminder of another of the film's themes: the power and fragility of the natural world.
As you would expect with a Cartoon Saloon feature, the 2D animation is stunning. Robyn is a bunch of long, straight lines, and she doesn't have nearly as much depth to her character until she goes into the woods. It's there that she meets the round, rough-and-tumble Mebh, who has leaves and sticks in her sphere of red hair and remains that way no matter if she's in the town or woods, showing how separated she is from society.
The town of Kilkenny is geometric and pointy, with lots of squares and triangles, and a dull colour palette. The severe, angular figures in the town contrast with the lush, round tones of the forest, making use of images that sometimes seem like woodcuttings, sometimes watercolours, sometimes wispy line drawings. The evident care with which Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart depict the texture of a clump of grass or a tree is a subtle but persistent reminder of another of the film's themes: the power and fragility of the natural world. In the woods, the colours become more vibrant and the shapes become rounder and more roughly sketched, especially when the characters turn into wolves.
In fact, the sequence where Robyn runs through the woods with Meph after turning into a wolf for the first time is one of the most beautifully animated scenes that you'll watch all year. When we see (and smell) the world through the Wolfwalker's eyes (and noses), it's a brilliantly imaginative representation of how another creature might view the world.
With its multi-layered metaphysical storytelling and rich animation, 'Wolfwalkers' is basically the only reason to acknowledge Apple TV+ at the moment. It also reaffirms that Cartoon Saloon makes animated films that culturally literate adults can watch without needing a pint-sized companion as pretext. After watching it, you'll see why the studio is destined to become just as legendary as Laika and Ghibli.