Wolfwalkers is a 2020 release that only snuck in my radar last month or so, but as soon as I saw the trailer for it I became deliriously excited to watch it, and now that I have I can say… What a marvelous surprise it was.
This year might’ve not seen a huge amount of movies as many of my most anticipated got postponed to 2021, but even if it had, Wolfwalkers would still have stood out as a beautifully crafted, emotionally riveting and stunningly directed masterpiece that celebrates paganism and differences in an awe-inspiring cry for freedom.
The story follows Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), a young girl living a sheltered life in a small village with her father (Sean Bean). The village, under the rule of the shady Lord Protector Cromwell (Simon McBurney), is surrounded by a wild forest, wherein lives a pack of wolves that are much maligned by the townspeople. In an encounter with the dreaded beasts, however, Robyn meets young Mebh (Eva Whittaker), who’s what’s called a “Wolfwalker”: a girl when awake, a wolf when asleep. As their relationship blooms, Robyn will find out that the wolves aren’t exactly what the Lord Protector makes them out to be, and that they are in more danger than she could’ve imagined…
The film immediately captivates by the richness of its world. Its highly idiosyncratic, deeply well realized and detailed world-building in comparison to most contemporary western animation makes it feel as though it’s something based on an existing property like a classic children’s book, but no, it’s a completely original work, a brand new world with brand new rules for us to dive into. And the way directors Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart and screenwriter Will Collins collaborate their narrative and visual techniques to navigate through that dazzling world they create is simply hypnotizing. The filmmakers exploit the visual language of hand-drawn animation in the most gorgeous ways to convey the story and its setting, and even when it does recur to some needed exposition, they deliver it with bewitching charm, often through the character of Mebh.
Every character here is incredibly well fleshed out, but Mebh particularly stands out because of how she’s portrayed in the film and the way it ties to its thematic lessons. Many movies that tackle a character similar to her tend to lean too much on the “wild” side; when you meet her, you half expect her to be this wholly ferocious, monosyllabic beast because that’s how these characters were popularized as, but imagine my surprise when I saw that Mebh was this highly talkative and perfectly eloquent energetic girl who’s not at all that different from Robyn herself. The portrayal of Mebh subverting those tropes directly fits in Robyn’s own notion of the wolves being subverted, as the shattering of pre-conceptions about anything that’s different from our own experience is one of the main themes in Wolfwalkers.
The wolves and the Wolfwalkers work as a metaphor for a plentitude of things – anything that’s demonized by conservatism like beliefs, ways of life or various sorts of identities -, but the most direct discourse is in regards to paganism. The movie does a fine job establishing the magic of the Wolfwalkers as something that comes from nature itself, and its users as beings whose strength comes from their harmony with nature. That foundation is very inherent to pagan philosophies and religions like Wicca, and the utter rejection of anything related to that by the part of the Lord Protector – whose name immediately evokes Christianity – coupled with his quest to eradicate the wolves directly alludes to the Catholic Church’s witch hunts. Christian fanaticism itself isn’t even left for subtle coding or symbolism, as the story straight up presents the Lord Protector as a “servant of God” and his arc is all about carrying “God’s will” – which is really a façade for his own will.
On that matter, Robyn is a young woman who was raised in a society she doesn’t truly belongs in; she’s forced to abide by the conservative ways of the village even if she doesn’t share the same beliefs, she needs to play societal roles that don’t at all fit her, she’s constantly told to be quiet and obey without questioning. And she’s a fantastic protagonist because besides being spirited and defying every law that’s forced onto her, the story often puts her in challenging, high-stakes situations where she has to make heavily consequential decisions she might not be ready to – which leads to outcomes that are either highly devastating or heavily cathartic emotionally, affecting every character around her. Her relationship with Mebh is one of the most captivating ones in recent memory, as my love for the two of them together progressively grew throughout the film, as did my worry for how they’d end up. It’s the heart of the story and what keeps you on the edge of your seat the most for the entire runtime, reaching an incredibly powerful and visually riveting climax at the end.
However, a very important theme here is also parenthood, as Robyn’s and Mebh’s relationships with their respective parents is one of the main driving forces of the story. Robyn’s arc with her father – a very conflicted character that makes a handful of bad decisions, yet the script always manages to portray him in an empathetic lens – is a true emotional roller coaster, as the ideals they live by constantly clash more and more as the plot advances, and through his character the screenplay does a phenomenal job at showcasing the hardships of being a single father to a young girl in a conservative patriarchal society. It’s a very relevant story that Wolfwalkers should be applauded for tackling. As for Mebh, an in-depth look at her relationship with her mother would involve spoilers, but it’s suffice to say it sheds an equally beautiful light on the mother-daughter relationship in a different way – let’s just say that these two arcs complement each other like a ying and a yang.
All of those beautifully resonating themes and engaging narrative are conveyed by incredible animation technique and dynamic, constantly imaginative direction. Films like this one are exactly why I disdain CGI animation’s practical monopolization within the industry as they prove there’s still so much to be done with hand-drawn techniques; Wolfwalkers looks very unapologetically organic by sometimes letting you see the process of construction of its animation by not always fully removing base sketches from the finalized art, and those details end up giving it a very rich and unique visual flow. The color palette is extremely pleasing and often vibrant, while the lighting effects used to portray magic give the visuals their final touch of whimsy, fulfilling a truly enchanting experience.
Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s direction shines. The filmmakers play around with animated language seamlessly, crafting highly dynamic scenes and filling them with action, momentum and emotion; they also frequently use shifting aspect ratios to better paint the characters’ psychological states in very cleverly constructed scenes of high emotional stakes. The stunning visuals are completed by an absolutely spellbinding original soundtrack by Bruno Coulais and the folk group Kila that truly realizes the film’s inherent magic, and the sequence where the score pairs up with Aurora’s voice in a new version of her song “Running with the Wolves” is one of the most magically riveting moments I’ve ever seen in any animated film, being comparable to the “What’s Up Danger?” scene in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse.
It’s no overstatement to say that Wolfwalkers is a masterpiece. A gorgeous-looking emotional self-discovery story with deeply compelling characters, one of the most beautiful female relationships in recent memory and thematic discussions that celebrate paganism, differences and freedom of thought, while making the best possible use of spectacular 2D animation. It’s a foregone conclusion that this film is a favorite pick for the Best Animated Feature category in the Oscars – and if it wasn’t for Pixar’s Soul coming out Christmas day I’d say it’s a foregone conclusion it’d win -, but if the Academy was truly worth anything it’d nominate it for Best Picture pronto, because I seriously doubt that any Best Picture nominee in next year’s Academy Awards is gonna be better than Wolfwalkers.
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