Of Canines, Crossbows and Colonialism- Wolfwalkers
Cartoon Saloon has often been dubbed the “Irish Ghibli” during their rise to success and it’s not hard to see why. Book of Kells, Song of the Sea and their newest film Wolfwalkers owe as much to Irish folklore as Ghibli’s catalogue owes to Japanese mythology. However, this comparison has always seemed contrived, as Wolfwalkers proves once again that Cartoon Saloon is very much its own beast.
Set in Kilkenny (where the studio is also located) during the dark Cromwellian era of Irish history, Wolfwalkers follows a young English girl Robin as she attempts to fulfil her dream of becoming a hunter like her father. However, she comes to realise that the local legends are all true as she encounters a young Wolfwalker: a mystical human who becomes a wolf in her sleep.
The clash between brutal historical fact and whimsical mythical storytelling is Wolfwalkers greatest triumph. Although it’s arguably a pity to have an English protagonist in such a textured, decidedly Irish tale it marks a brave effort at telling a story about the evils of colonialism. Especially one that delights and teaches in the way the best children’s films do. Fans of the stark brutality of Disney's early features will be particularly chuffed with the finale.
Cartoon Saloon’s signature style is shown at its most inventive here. Unorthodox, impossible framing and blocking is natural and charming, individual frames could easily be illustrations in a gorgeous storybook. From a distance Kilkenny is broken down into simple triangles, showing the spread and size of this city in a simple, striking way.
Sketch marks are left in view, evoking the beautiful craftsmanship of Aardman’s early features, or how Wes Anderson’s animation highlights the imperfects in fur movement. As opposed to dull, overly slick CG, Wolfwalkers is happy to let it show that it has been crafted, slight technical imperfections becoming the character of the film.
Perhaps the only true misstep is in some of the vocal performances. The leads are all terrific, especially Sean Bean using his Ned Stark gravitas to ground the ensemble with his fatherly warmth. The relative newcomer Eva Whittaker is delightful and wild as Mébh the young Wolfwalker. However some bit-part players are utterly out of place, one old woman sounding phoned in and slightly ridiculous.
The oddball performance choices are the one sour note in an otherwise stunning feature.
Wolfwalkers is a triumph. Delightful and insightful in equal measure.
Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart have crafted a fairy tale with teeth, combining Guillermo Del Toro’s supernatural and political interests in a way that is uniquely Irish and brilliant.
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