Kilkenny based animation studio, Cartoon Saloon, have quietly been making some of the best animated films over the last 10 years or so, and whilst this hasn’t gone unnoticed – with all three feature films they’ve released so far receiving Oscar nominations – they are rarely mentioned in the same breath as the powerhouses such as Disney, Pixar, or Ghibli.
Their run of films, The Secret of Kells (2009), Song of the Sea (2014), The Breadwinner (2017) and now Wolfwalkers, is about as good of a run that any studio could hope for, and the consistent quality of their output means they absolutely should be in the conversation with the aforementioned animation greats.
Wolfwalkers takes (and enhances) the therianthropic elements of Pixar’s Brave, and the fantastical folklore of Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke and whilst those are the easy comparison points to make, the film also manages to be wholly unique and completely wonderful on its own merit.
Set against the backdrop of England’s colonization of Ireland, the film introduces us to Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey), and her father Bill (Sean Bean) who is tasked with driving the wolves out of the nearby woods. Whilst outside the confines of the city walls, Robyn meets and befriends Mebh (Eva Whittaker), the youngest member of a mysterious tribe who transform into wolves when they sleep. However, this newly formed friendship is threatened by the perception that the wolves are dangerous, and it is down to Robyn and Mebh to prove otherwise.
What unfolds is a gorgeous and unforgettable tale of friendship, and finding empathy through putting yourself in someone else’s shoes…or perhaps paws in this case! It is so refreshing as well to see a film focused almost entirely on female friendship without feeling the need to shoehorn in a romance or anything else extraneous. There’s moments of great joy, and pathos, and throughout, the film never loses its sense of wonder and magic.
Wolfwalkers is defiantly hand-drawn, and the beautiful storybook style animation is simply magnificent to look at. There’s moments as well where we see things from the wolf’s perspective, and the visualisation of sounds and smells is expertly realised. The stunning ‘Running With The Wolves’ sequence, set to the AURORA song of the same name is exhilarating; the sense of freedom and elation in this moment is as palpable as if you were experiencing it yourself. A feat that is even more remarkable from an animation!
It’s always the sign of a great animated film, where you could see yourself having multiple shots in the film framed and put on your wall, and Wolfwalkers is definitely one such film. The visuals towards the end are particularly breathtaking, and they are the images which will stay with you long after the film finishes. You’ll want to pause and linger on certain images, and the level of detail and care in the drawings will never fail to astound.
It also takes a great deal of skill from a storytelling standpoint to have a film which is so deeply rooted in fantastical and mythical folklore, and yet for it to be so accessible and easy for anyone to grasp. There’s a simplicity to the animation and the characters that will appeal to children, and some deep thematic points for older audiences. Like the three films that have preceded this one, Cartoon Saloon have once again proven a universality to the stories that by their nature are also intrinsically linked to a particular time, place or people.
What they have given us in Wolfwalkers is something which is truly unique, beautiful to look at, and exceptionally well crafted. There is no doubt that this film will once again receive the much-deserved acclaim come awards season, and I doubt that I will see a better animated film for the rest of the year; truly masterful work.