Director – Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart – 2020 – Ireland, Luxembourg, France – Cert. PG – 100m
An adventurous English girl from Kilkenny encounters a wild Irish girl in the woods who can change into a wolf in groundbreaking 2D animation – on BFI Player as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020 on Saturday, October 10th, 18.30-19.00 start, in cinemas from Monday, October 26th, then on Apple TV from Sunday, 13 December
This is co-director Moore’s third production based on Irish mythology for Irish animation house Cartoon Saloon following The Secret of Kells (2009, about the making of the Book Of Kells) and Song of the Sea (2014, about selkies / mermaids).
Irish WolfWalkers mythology concerns humans who can transform into wolves and back again, while mankind’s relationship with the wolf down the ages has to do with destroying its natural habitat and a fear of the animal derived largely from its attacks on small animals such as pets and, very occasionally, children. These two ideas are combined in the film WolfWalkers along with Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland as Lord Protector, although historical accuracy clearly isn’t the intention as not only is his name left out abut also what happens to the Lord Protector here is very different from what happened to him in real life.
If the Lord Protector (voice: Simon McBurney) doesn’t appear ’til some way in, the WolfWalkers are there almost from the get-go. A local Irish woodcutter is attacked by wolves and his chest viciously scratched. A feral girl turns up, calms the beasts down and heals the man’s wounds. She is a WolfWalker.
The setting is Kilkenny, Ireland, 1650. Englishman Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) is laying traps for the wolves in the forest around the town. Bill’s feisty, young daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), a deft shot with a crossbow, seeks adventure slaying giants, wolves and so forth. Her father fears for her safety and besides, children are barred from going outside the city walls.
When the free-spirited girl sneaks out to the forest to hunt wolves, it doesn’t go according to plan. Robyn puts an arrow through the wing of her beloved pet bird of prey Merlyn before being found by her father. He is angry that she disobeyed his instructions but still manages to confort the girl in her trauma. She just can’t bear to stay indoors though. Besides, she is determined to retrieve the lost Merlyn. So she again leaves the town and encounters feral girl and WolfWalker Mehb (Eva Whittaker).
The relationship between he two girls is at the core of the narrative. The wild and fiercely Irish Mehb derides the Northern English Robyn as a townie, but it soon becomes clear that they have a great deal in common. Not least because Robyn gets bitten during their initial fighting which later causes her to transform into a WolfWalker herself. When she sleeps as a human at night, her wolf body leaves and roams wild. She can’t explain this to her father though because he dismisses WolfWalkers as mere stories.
Much is made of the fact that the Goodfellowes are English while everyone around them is Irish. But they are also Northerners while the Lord Protector is an entitled Southerner. For him, nature is there to be subdued. Wolves are to be killed, forests cleared. He justifies all this with a dubious, Puritan ethic. In fact, the hunted wolves are on the defence as their natural environment disappears.
The Lord Protector also thinks nothing of demoting the loyal Goodfellowe and banishing his daughter to subservience as a scullerymaid, a situation with which the girl is far from happy and against which she revolts. Nora Twomey, director of Cartoon Saloon’s The Breadwinner (2017) which in its portrayal of life under the Taliban articulated similar concerns about unjust social systems oppressing women, memorably voices the head scullerymaid.
The story is as scathing of the English class system as it is of England’s lording it over Ireland. Goodfellowe buys into both but is treated badly by his superior who doesn’t really care about the lower orders at all, be they English or Irish. He doesn’t care much for the environment or the creatures that live within it either. It’s all about lording it over other people or the world around him, which suggests a Puritan ethic cut loose from some of the basic moral tenets of Christianity.
The film is beautiful to look at, with the dull grays and solid lines of the restrictive, regimented town contrasting with the natural greens and flowing lines of the woodlands beyond. At times, the images abandon traditional perspective to portray the world in very different visual terms, giving an idea of what the hand-drawn animation medium is capable and making one wonder how Moore, Stewart and their collaborators will push the envelope even further on future projects.
Magnificent and stunning. Seek WolfWalkers out and see it.
Previously on BFI Player as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020 on Saturday, October 10th, 18.30-19.00 start.
See also my Reform magazine review to coincide with the UK release. WolfWalkers is in cinemas from Monday, October 26th, then on Apple TV from Sunday, 13 December.