BFI LFF 2020

Wolfwalkers review – Cartoon Saloon at their bewitching best

The Irish animation studio's latest is a visual and lyrical triumph, blending cultural history and folklore to luminous results

Irish studio Cartoon Saloon has already cemented itself as one of animation’s brightest with a trio of gorgeous films to their name, but Wolfwalkers may just be their finest work yet. For their latest, directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, Ireland’s cultural history and folklore are interwoven to bewitching results.

Transporting the action back to medieval Kilkenny (where Cartoon Saloon is based), the film is set in a mythical world where wolves are seen as demonic creatures that need to be wiped out for deforestation. Living among them is the titular mythical being named Mebh (Eva Whittaker), who can communicate with the pack and turn into a wolf herself when she’s asleep. She begrudgingly befriends a “townie,” Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), who yearns to be a hunter like her father (Sean Bean). Through their transformative friendship, Robyn learns that everything she has been taught about the forest’s creatures are wrong.

Expectedly, the animation is a magnificent sight to behold. The dense forest is a luminous kaleidoscope of greens and browns, more reminiscent of a stained-glass window than a drawing. A pack of wolves looks like a black, raging river constructed with elongated, flowing lines. In contrast, the town is made up of rigid, block shapes, accentuating the divide between the industrial and the natural.

While major studio animated films consistently aim for realism, it’s refreshing to see a lyrical approach to the form. Wolfwalkers makes no attempt to hide that a person is behind the lines, as rough sketches are even visible at times. In fact, the film feels lovingly hand-crafted – a wholly unique gift that can’t be replicated or manufactured on a production line.

Even more impressive is the not-so-subtle politics embedded in the narrative. Animated films have long examined humanity’s relationship to nature, Studio Ghibli’s works chief among them, but Wolfwalkers roots this always timely idea within the effects of colonialism. Set against the backdrop of Oliver Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland, the film’s revisionist take on the country’s history adds a rich layer while still remaining accessible.

What a joy it is to see a family film that takes its audience seriously, no matter the age. Despite its historical context, Wolfwalkers resonates in a time where teenagers are acutely aware of the injustices of the world, and are taking action against them. This is a wholly urgent work that understands that the kids really are alright.

Wolfwalkers was screened as part of the BFI Film Festival 2020. Find out more and get showtimes here.

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