The proliferation of CGI in animated films continues to raise concerns about the medium’s treatment of hand-drawn content. While CG animation became the norm over the past fifteen years, hand-drawn animation found its niche. Cartoon Saloon, an Irish studio, has become one of the more consistent creators to fill the void. With The Secret Life of Kells, The Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner earning critical success, the studio has earned quite a reputation. Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart continue to build that reputation with Wolfwalkers. Through allegory and folklore, Wolfwalkers tells a story relevant to a moment where isolation and nationalism have become norms.
Wolfwalkers follows Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), a young girl whose father (Sean Bean) has been hired to hunt wolves. The creatures have stopped the town from expanding into the woods. However, before the wolves kill the townspeople, a mystical duo steps in to stop the violence. When Robyn attempts to help her father, her falcon Merlin is injured. When the young “Wolfwalker” Mebh (Eva Whittaker) saves Merlin, Robyn and the magical girl become friends. Soon, Robyn is torn between allegiance to her friend and the town that employs her father.
Moore and Stewart push Cartoon Saloon to new heights with the luscious animation. The magical elements give the team plenty of opportunities to layer the frames with detail. Etchings, light, and plantlife explode off the screen. Cartoon Saloon’s house style provides a foundation for character design, yet the wolves and other creatures spawn artistic creativity. Some feature bubbly designs, while others showcase clearly visible pencil etchings. Studios often digitally remove the pencilwork from their efforts. Cartoon Saloon’s choice to leave them in the images feels pointed.
The forests are beautiful, but the film also introduces new senses and metaphysical imagery that alters the rules of the established world. The use of minimalism and sketching creates uniquely beautiful images that feel indebted to Ghibli fantasies. Wolfwalkers’s artists consistently challenge what is possible in animation. They are unashamed of the medium they preserve. Only limited by their creativity, the team on Wolfwalkers capitalizes on the unique images that can only be created by this style of animation.
The actual story at the heart of Wolfwalkers feels pointed at this moment. Environmental concerns, xenophobia, and totalitarianism find themselves as central issues within the narrative. The friendship of Robyn and Mehb provides the story with heart, but these other concepts deepen the tale’s relevance to global politics today. Issues of isolationism and demonizing groups as “the other” lead to violence and hate. Wolfwalkers openly engages with these dialogues.
This does not make Wolfwalkers perfect in its execution of discussing these themes. The interactions between Robyn and her father come off as repetitive, especially given their frequency. Robyn preaches, and sadly, must repeat her messages to the town. Many characters struggle to empathize or understand her efforts. Yet that struggle continues as real-world protests continue to confront decades of oppression. The line between framing an argument and hitting the audience over the head with an idea can be thin, and at times Wolfwalkers frustrates.
Despite this gripe, Wolfwalkers emerges as a brilliantly told story that perpetuates empathy over fear. Its themes are simple enough to grasp, yet deep enough to add true texture to an already interesting narrative. The animation is among the best on-screen in recent memory. The story will undeniably remind viewers of other recent features, but the craft and character development elevate Wolfwalkers above its contemporaries. Wolfwalkers might borrow from many sources, but the universality of its tale makes it a must-watch feature.
ALAN FRENCH’S RATING FOR Wolfwalkers IS AN 8 OUT OF 10.