It has been quite some time since a high-profile animated film has been crafted through hand-drawn 2-D animation, with the exception of other Cartoon Saloon projects. Companies like Disney dropped this technique long ago, and have since relied on computer-generated animation and other high-tech alternatives. These new animation techniques have become so prolific that new Disney animated films are essentially photorealistic, and are becoming closer and closer to live-action CGI. This is why it’s refreshing to see a new film like Wolfwalkers, a hand-painted animated movie that resembles 20th Century art more than it resembles the computer-generated imagery of today. From the very first shot to the credits, this film includes some of the most visually stunning animation in years. It is very rare that an animated movie captures a certain magic like Wolfwalkers does, and though the film may be a bit cliché at times, the talent on display is immeasurable.
The film is based on Irish folklore, which makes for a unique and authentic story of family and friendship. Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), our protagonist, is a young girl who wants to be a hunter like her dad (Sean Bean). He is the best in the kingdom they live in, and every day Robyn dreams of hunting the wolves that roam the forests surrounding her village. She desperately wants to prove herself, so she takes her crossbow and her bird sidekick and follows her father into the wilderness one day. While out there, many of the truths she thought she knew about her kingdom and the woods that surround it are questioned. She comes across some wolves and realizes their situation is more complicated than her father and others made it seem. She also meets a Wolfwalker (a human who can talk to wolves) and strikes up an unlikely friendship that makes her question her alliances and embark on a journey of self-discovery and love.
Wolfwalkers is like if Disney’s Brave was an amazing movie. It has many of the same themes, but instead of feeling like a typical Hollywood/Disney cartoon, it feels like a magical journey into a land of folklore and magic. As soon as the film starts, the atmosphere of the film feels different than any other animated movie I have seen recently. Maybe it has something to with the fact that every single frame is hand-painted, making this one of the most gorgeous animation experiences in recent memory. Literally every frame of this film seems like it could be a painting that sells for thousands of dollars at a New York auction. If you pause the movie at any point, the shot you paused on will look amazing, and it would be easy to sit and admire that frame for an hour. The wide shots are especially well-painted. Each overhead shot of the village looks like a map, yet the people are very much alive and moving around. The details are astonishing, making one wonder how much time and effort making this film took from all involved.
The plot of Wolfwalkers at first seems predictable but it quickly matters little whether one can predict it, because the characters and the atmosphere are so electric that it engrosses viewers regardless. By the end of the first third of the film, I was onboard to almost any direction Tomm Moore and company could go; the characters felt like family and the conflict truly seemed like life or death for the protagonists and, by extension, for the viewer. The movie often reminded me of Hayao Miyazaki’s best work, specifically Princess Mononoke, in the way that it handles its environmental messages and personifies the wilderness. Generally, folklore always has an interesting manner of handling the concept of nature in relation to man’s interference, and Wolfwalkers is another example of some great symbolic imagery with a positive environmental message.
In some ways, one could nitpick the ending and certain other aspects of the film that adhere to “children’s movie” tropes, but in this case, I never thought it detracted from the overall experience. Even though this is a PG-rated animated film, it never feels like it is dumbed down to please kids but annoy the hell out of anyone above twelve. I’d go as far as to say that this was made with all audiences in mind, whether it be an eight-year-old or an 80 year-old. The best animated films are made like this, and I appreciate Moore for making movies that are universally well-recognized. Any culture could appreciate the messages expressed in this film about family, kinship and the environment, which makes Wolfwalkers all the more potent.
I have not seen Pixar’s Soul yet, but for now I will say that Wolfwalkers is the most unique animated experience of the year with great confidence. Some scenes capture that magical feeling of a great film only felt a few times a year, so despite its flaws I still adore this film and cannot wait to see it again. One sequence includes a pop song with generic lyrics, but the relationship onscreen during this enthralling sequence is so engaging that it superseded any criticism I could throw at it. Wolfwalkers makes me want an endless supply of Cartoon Saloon and Tomm Moore films in the future, and I desperately hope that more mainstream audiences view this movie and recognize the immense talent involved.
I give Wolfwalkers an A.