WOLFWALKERS, the latest film from Cartoon Saloon, is a stunningly animated family film deeply embedded in a sense of Irish history and Irish identity. Having played at the Toronto International Film Festival and BFI London Film Festival, Apple has snapped it up to premiere on their Apple TV+ streaming service later this year. Using the backdrop of Cromwell’s subjugation of the Irish in the mid-17th century, WOLFWALKERS tells a familiar story about feminine power and the natural world but does so with such breathtakingly original animation that it’s a joy to watch.
In 17th-century Ireland, the city of Kilkenny is occupied by English forces led by Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney). Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) is an English girl and aspiring hunter who wants to follow her father (Sean Bean) in clearing the nearby forest for Cromwell and ridding the townsfolk of the wolves plaguing their fields. But when Robyn stumbles across Mebh (Eva Whittaker) and her mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy) in the forest, she discovers the secret of the wolfwalkers: people able to transform into wolves at night and stalk the woods with their wolfpack.
Cartoon Saloon outdo themselves with the animation in WOLFWALKERS. The film has a beautiful blend of art styles that smartly conveys the differing lives of the city and the forest. Kilkenny and the townsfolk living there are rendered in a Cubist style, all harsh corners and sharply delineated blocks. In contrast, the forest has a soft Impressionist style filling the frame with curves, circles, and smooth colours. Mebh, a girl of the forest, is a little orange blur: a circle of red hair dashing through the woods and outwitting the English guards in the town. Magical elements of the story are even more painterly. The animation is deeply evocative, contributing to and enhancing the film’s narrative in significant ways. WOLFWALKERS is never anything short of stunningly beautiful.
The voice cast is equally terrific with Honor Kneafsey and Eva Whittaker doing a particularly strong job as the two leads. Whittaker as Mebh is a bouncing ball of young Irish energy giving a musicality to her lines and delivering during the film’s more heartrending scenes. Sean Bean continues his career trajectory of appearing in medieval fantasies where characters control wolves. And Simon McBurney gives a quietly sinister voice to a Disney villain version of Oliver Cromwell, exuding menace throughout the film.
WOLFWALKERS’ environmental themes and the characters of the wolfwalkers themselves draw an easy comparison with PRINCESS MONONOKE, but WOLFWALKERS differentiates itself through a strong sense of place and context. Ireland and Irish identity is key to the story and its characters. The directors, Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, draw inspiration from the history of Kilkenny, the home of Cartoon Saloon’s studio, and make that historical and geographical embeddedness key to the film’s story. It’s a bold family film that not only uses the backdrop of England’s subjugation of the Irish but casts Oliver Cromwell in the role of villain.
While the story is a little familiar and the pacing is a bit off, it’s never anything but a joy to be in the world that Cartoon Saloon paint. For the plot’s familiarity, it’s refreshing to see this story set against an often-overlooked period of history like Cromwell’s occupation of Ireland. It shows the fertile ground available for stories within these colonial and imperial histories. Out there somewhere, there’s a little Irish girl who wants to be a wolf just waiting to discover this film and love it to pieces.