Whenever one thinks of animation studios, the main ones one would think of would be either Disney and Pixar from the West and Studio Ghibli overseas. Then on the lesser known side, there would be studios like Laika and Aardman studios. But there is one that is even more obscure and that is called the Cartoon Saloon, based in Kilkenny, Ireland.
Although they have only made three feature-length films (in addition to their latest), they have all been very well received by both critics and audiences. First it was The Secret of Kells (which was based on forest sprites); then it was Song of the Sea (which was based on selkies; mythological beings than can transform from human to seal) and following them was The Breadwinner (which was about the effects of war from the viewpoint of Middle Eastern/Islamic culture).
But what makes their films special is their strong adherence to hand-drawn animation, their distinct storytelling that harkens back to their Irish roots and their lack of patronising towards their target audience. Led by major stalwarts Tomm Moore, Paul Young and Nora Twomey, Cartoon Saloon is something to behold.
Which leads us to their latest project, Wolfwalkers. From the looks of the premise, the studio has gone back to the fantasy genre and from their sterling (if underseen) reputation promises anything; their latest film looks like it could be a real winner.
Set in 17th century Ireland, Honor Kneafsey stars as Robyn Goodfellowe, the headstrong and resilient daughter of Bill (Sean Bean), a hunter (assigned to hunt wolves by the Lord Protector, voiced with menacing relish by Simon McBurney) who constantly worries for her daughter’s wellbeing due to the ongoing conflict between their people and the wolves in the woods. One day, while venturing out in said woods, Robyn encounters a Mebh (Eva Whittaker) a Wolfwalker, who has magical healing powers and lives alongside both humans and wolves.
The pair bond over time and Mebh mentions her mother Wolfwalker Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy), who has been absent since she ventured into the woods as a wolf and never returned. Robyn, relating to Mebh’s predicament due to her own loneliness without a mother, promises to help her. But it comes with a cost as it may be the catalyst that will pit the two sides in all-out war.
Does Wolfwalkers live up to the high standards of Cartoon Saloon? Although the story is a bit too familiar for its own good, Wolfwalkers is still a fantastic effort that both children and adults will definitely enjoy. The story itself has many fantasy tropes that are reminiscent of other works (the wolf transformations are similar to Wolf Children, the themes of environmentalism are reminiscent of Studio Ghibli films, the story of warring oppositions—well, you get the idea) but director Moore instils the story with visually enrapturing animation.
The hand-drawn animation, the storybook picturesque style lends such beauty to the story that it becomes quite euphoric yet immersive in how it introduces the audience into the world (pre-Celtic fantasy) without needless exposition. The animators are also not into smoothing out their animation to the point that it looks sterile. The free-form drawings have lots of traces all over it as if they appear to be unfinished; it looks storyboarded on screen without it actually being storyboarded, making the imperfections look ironically perfect in an old-fashioned way.
The scriptwriters Ross Stewart and Will Collins (in addition to Moore) also manage to create distinct characters that are easy to relate to while having enough human complexities to make them stand out. Robyn is outgoing and yet restrained to reach her full potential by her overprotective father and yet in spite of this, she appears to be similar to her father than one would expect; which lends tension to her and the character of Mebh. As for her character, she begins to bear an ill will towards humans which ironically goes against the implications of a healer and her role in being the true bridge between wolves and humans. The flaws and contradictions of said characters are refreshing to see; especially when viewed in comparison to Disney animated films where they are mainly uninteresting ciphers at worst.
The filmmakers also never dilute the seriousness of the themes at hand and trust the audience enough to understand the ramifications of the actions of the characters. Whether it would be about greed, war, sacrifice and standing up for what is right, the drama (aided by the rousing score by Irish band Kila and frequent Saloon collaborator Bruno Coulais) is emotionally rousing and deeply satisfying.
The British/Irish voice cast lends much enthusiasm and passion to the project. Kneafsey — whom this reviewer had seen in films like The Bookshop and Crooked House – and Whittaker are enjoyable and easy to root for as empowered protagonists as well as their poignant friendship. Bean is believably conflicted as the worrisome father who has his reasons; but those reasons may be more peculiar than one would think.
With mesmerizing and astounding animation, a top-notch cast, emotionally poignant storytelling and tons of fantasy fun, Wolfwalkers is not only one of the best animated films of 2020, but it is also one of the best films in 2020, period. Highly recommended.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Wolfwalkers screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival, which is taking place mostly digitally this year. For more details head to tiff.net.