From the outset, “Wolfwalkers” wants you to change the way you look at things. It is an immediate vocation – formal and thematic – for a Cartoon Saloon production. The hand-drawn animation complements the studio’s previous work, which has received acclaim for its three previous attempts – “The Secret of Kells”, “Song of the Sea” and “The Breadwinner”. Like that trio of films, “Wolfwalkers” uses a 2D animation style but an animation style informs the developing narrative. The first few minutes of the film teach us how to watch it, establishing something that becomes key. As we get used to the environment, we recognize that the animation is not just 2D but is emphasized in a way to highlight its virtual qualities. We see where the lines meet, so that the images look like what they are – drawings come to life. There is no imitation of realism here; instead the aesthetic vision reveals the unrealism of what we see. It takes some adjustment at first, especially because the lack of depth from the 2D animation seems almost fancy. The ostensible fanciful quality is deceptively sleight-of-hand nonetheless. The aesthetics come to steer, and then overturn the intensity of the story. For, “Wolfwalkers” presents itself as a story – caught somewhere between a historical lesson and a fantasy epic.
The time is the 1650s in Kilkenny, Ireland. The date of this period coincides with a significant and turbulent time in Irish history, during Cromwell’s violent occupation of the country. Duality runs through “Wolfwalkers”. Human and wolf. Real and imaginative. Physical and psychic. And a central one, Irish and British. Our heroine, Robyn Goodfellowe, is a young woman living behind the fortified walls in Kilkenny with her English father, a soldier in service to the Lord Protector. Outside the walls, wolves are wolves, a threat to the English lordship. Bill Goodfellowe is part of a troop instructed to clear the forest outside the walls of anything wild. The flora and fauna seem to retain ancient magic that destabilizes the Lord Protector. His feelings are antagonistic, but his concerns are unfounded. There is magic in that forest.
Robyn discovers so much when a headstrong attempt to prove his mettle leaves its way by a pack of wolves. She is rescued by Mebh, a young girl with a wild head of red hair who seems more animal than human. But, Mebh is not a regular girl. She is a wolfwalker – one of a line of special guardians who are diminishing with the ability to move between human form and canine. As they change shape, they can retain their human form while their spirit transforms into wolves and goes scouring. Robyn is confused and delighted by his new friend, but it is a complicated alliance that threatens her father’s job and her relationship with him. Wolfwalkers are not part of the stock lifestyle that Robyn has to adhere to. And so, Will Collins’ script quickly establishes an identity crisis. Will Robyn stay true to his human responsibilities, or embrace the wolfwalker’s magic possibilities?
“Wolfwalkers” unfolds with unprecedented seriousness so that it catches you off guard. The structure of the story is simple, emphasized by the already complex animation. As directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart develop Robyn’s identity crisis, the story unfolds without a hint of irony or liquidation. It is openness in a spirit that feels almost out of place. But being out of place is exactly what makes “Wolfwalkers” seem worthwhile. It’s a movie out of its place, and time-consuming and yet conscientious and valuable. The sincerity emanating from each frame is noteworthy. December’s release, as the holiday season approaches a world-weary year, feels appropriate. Soon, Robyn and Bill’s parents’ dynamics are underpinned by Mebh’s search for her missing mother. It’s a plot point that sends the film’s final act into a painful engagement with loss and identity that lifts the stakes to levels of emotional acumen that are likely to inspire tears.
There is an attractive wit to alternate “Wolfwalkers” roots. The ways in which he marries his magical realism to notions of duality and duality are familiar and resonant. Robyn’s dual role as an oppressed and potential oppressor, as a citizen of Kilkenny, is effectively mined as the narrative complicates our idea of who is a friend and who is an enemy. The fact that the animated wolves are not beautifully drawn forces us to re-contextualize how we react to the things we see. As the film progresses, “Wolfwalkers” challenges us to rethink our viewpoints and give a second, and third, look to the things and people around us. Amidst his human interest, his metaphorical potential as an environmentalist cautionary tale is unique
You may want to embrace the children around you a little closer after “Wolfwalkers”. You may also want to have a long conversation with them about acceptance, differences, identity and the harm that human beings can cause. Such are the crowds that are included in “Wolfwalkers”. He is gentle and warm and genuinely serious in a way that feels about to become too fragile, and then he also encloses you with his intelligence and thoughtfulness emphasizing the ways in which he -to accompany human nature. His modesty is his torch, and his difference is from the current slate of animated films. It will reach audiences in time to present a welcome embrace of the season.
“Wolfwalkers” starts streaming on AppleTV on December 11.