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Review: Wolfwalkers (2020)

Directed by: , | 100 minutes | , | Original Voice Cast: , , , Simon McBurney, Tommy Tiernan, , Jon Kenny, John Morton, , , , Niamh Moyles

“The best animated film that never came out”. For example, reference is sometimes made to “The Thief and the Cobbler”. It should have been the magnum opus of the British-American animation filmmaker Richard Williams, but it got stuck in ‘production hell’ for almost thirty years. Even before Williams had a chance to finish his film, the producer he had teamed up with took the drastic decision to pull the plug on “The Thief and the Cobbler” after yet another deadline and budget overrun. Or, well, Williams was forced to hand over his “pet project” to Fred Calvert, who completed the film faster and for a lot less money – but significantly less authentic and artistic – in 1993. Unsurprisingly, the film turned out to be a big flop, but Williams’s rough, unfinished version turned out to be a great source of inspiration for young filmmakers and a triumph for traditional animation. Hand-drawn and based on indigenous art and culture; that was also what Irish filmmakers Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart had in mind when they founded their animation studio in the late 1990s. They graduated during the time when Pixar changed the animation filmmaking profession forever with “Toy Story” (1995), but nevertheless pursued their dream. And with success: their first three films – ‘The Secret of Kells’ (2009), ‘Song of the Sea’ (2014) and ‘The Breadwinner’ (2017) – were nominated for an Oscar (and won many other awards in the wait) and it must be very strange if that doesn’t happen with their equally beautiful fourth film ‘Wolfwalkers’ (2020).

With “The Secret of Kells” and “Song the Sea”, “Wolfwalkers” forms a trilogy in which Moore and Stewart honor the culture, , nature and enchanting mythology of their homeland and in which magic and fables play a central role. Inspiration was taken from a time-honored legend that tells of (Catholic) Irish people who refused to be converted to Christianity and as a result were cursed. While their bodies remain asleep in bed, their minds turn into a wolf that haunts at night. The legend returns in the story of “Wolfwalkers”, set in the mid-seventeenth century, in which the Protestant English Lord Protector holds sway over the Irish town of Kilkenny (the good listener will of course recognize the ruthless Oliver Cromwell). Not only has he set his sights on converting the local population; The wolf pack hiding in the woods near the town is also a thorn in his side. He has dutifully commissioned Bill Goodfellowe to exterminate the animals. His eleven-year-old daughter Robyn wants nothing more than to follow in his wake into the forest, but her father does not consider hunting a girl’s territory. The stubborn Robyn, however, does not just let himself be rebuked and secretly goes after him. In the forest she meets the wild, red-haired girl Mebh MacTire, who lives and communicates with the wolves and can even transform into a wolf. She tells Robyn that she is the last wolfwalker and is concerned about her mother, whose wolf spirit seems to have disappeared. Her brand new friendship with this wolf girl presents Robyn with a life-size dilemma …

What is immediately noticeable about “Wolfwalkers” is the beautiful, unique animation style that characterizes all Cartoon Saloon productions. The draughtsmen use a clever, artistic way to emphasize the contrast between the forest and the city. Where Kilkenny looks angular, with clean and straight lines in the buildings and angular stylized characters, the Wolfwalkers and their living environment are rounder, looser and more fluid. The use of sober gray and brown tones makes the city seem chilly and distant, so that you actually feel trapped under the yoke of Lord Protector. The contrast with the colorful, free-feeling forest where you do not have to feel oppressed by anything or anyone is great. Even the perspective between the two worlds differs; the city is significantly flatter than the rich forest. This contrast can also be seen in the character traits of the characters: where Lord Protector stands for oppression in all his actions, Mebh personifies untamed and unspoiled Ireland. In addition to a metaphorically used but passionate history lesson about the colonial drive of the English, Cartoon Saloon also adds a good dose of women’s emancipation. Because where many (animation) films have difficulty squeezing out one interesting female character, “Wolfwalkers” has no fewer than two. Moreover, they are not inferior to each other, because the dynamic and passionate Mebh gets more than excellent rebuttal from the bold One persistent Robyn, whose curiosity trumps her fear of the wrath of the dreaded Lord Protector. The fact that we also get to see the beauty and unspoilt nature has to offer us – and that you should not simply exploit and destroy it for your own gain – gives this fascinating animation film a third deepening layer.

Pixar, Ghibli, Laika. Cartoon Saloon certainly fits in that illustrious list. With ‘Wolfwalkers’ they again amaze the animation enthusiast with dizzying visual splendor, rich fantasies and genuine emotion, in a film that expresses an infectious respect for not only nature as its miracles, but also for young women with a strong self wants and the versatility of Ireland’s cultural heritage.

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