Women Who Run with the Wolves: Wolfwalkers (2020) Reviewed

Director Tomm Moore, and his team at Cartoon Saloon, are known for creating rich tapestries of Irish folklore in the form of their gorgeously animated feature films, focusing on a trilogy that began with The Secret of Kells (2009) and continued with Song of the Sea (2014). This richly imagined trilogy is completed with Wolfwalkers, co-directed by Ross Stewart – a vibrant celebration of the glories of the wild world and the ancient power of the friendships between women.

Irish legends tell of creatures known as wolfwalkers – humans who commune with wolves of the forest, whose magic can heal wounds and whose spirits become wolves themselves while their bodies sleep. When the “Lord Protector”, Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney) hires an English hunter, Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) to eradicate the wolf pack that thrives in the woods surrounding the town of Kilkenny, Bill’s young daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) must accustom herself to living in a place of rules and overprotection. She begins to feel cooped up, and escapes into the forest to try helping her father in the hunt – and ends up face-to-face with the wolfwalker child, Mebh (Eva Whittaker), who ignites Robyn’s free spirit and sparks a truly magical friendship. But with Cromwell’s men decimating the forest and her father hunting wolves, Robyn’s loyalties are stretched between the father who has always protected her, and the free-spirited wild child who has stolen her imagination and unlocked her desire for freedom. When she promises to help Mebh find her mother, whose wolf form has been away from her human body for a long time – she finds her own wolfwalker powers awakening, and must try to save both the only blood family she has left, and the lupine family she has chosen.

Photo: Cartoon Saloon / Melusine Productions

Cartoon Saloon’s Irish folklore films are visually striking, using contrasting color palettes and character designs to tell the inner stories of the worlds they create. The Kilkenny of Wolfwalkers is austere and angular, full of sharp, thickened black lines and a burned-woodblock aesthetic to reflect the drab grey cage in which its people live in fear, both of the natural world and of the divine punishments threatened upon them by their Lord Protector should they stray from his fold. The surrounding forest is contrasted in swirling watercolor scenes, its lines playful and dynamic, the wolves themselves becoming part of the shifting jeweled shadows and illuminating the blossoming sisterhood between Mebh and Robyn in joyful hues of gold, silvered blue, and a bright gradient of greens. The contrast between the puritanical “townies” and the wild forest children of magic is a striking one – and in between the two worlds, Robyn and her father stand out. Bill’s nose and chin viewed head-on are a pair of arrows, pointing in opposite directions, foreshadowing the internal conflicts the character will endure throughout the story, as he tries desperately to keep his daughter safe even though he can see that the closer he keeps her to their new home and all its rules, the more miserable she is becoming.

Robyn and Mebh, and their unusual friendship, are at the very heart of this film, and it’s difficult not to notice the transformation in Robyn as she begins to discover the wildness of the spirit inside herself, inspired by the irrepressible Mebh, and recall the other lively female characters in Moore’s past films. Somewhere in between the secret suburban selkie Saoirse and the feisty forest fairy Aisling is Mebh, growling and snapping like a little wolf cub and yet longing for the gentle healing touch of her sleeping mother and delighting in the bond she shares with Robyn as their wolf forms dash through the moonlit woods together. Mebh is defined by both her freedom and her loneliness, both informed by the deep, ancient magic coursing through her: the wildness of women, the most secreted and sacred of any culture’s continued survival, is a thread that runs through all three films in the trilogy, and it is brought to life perfectly in loving detail. Hand-drawn animation has a power of expression that doesn’t always exist within computer-generated films, and Moore and his team understand this. Their features are designed to be enjoyed repeatedly, with hidden details and subtle symbolism sewn into each painstakingly illustrated frame. 

Photo: Cartoon Saloon / Melusine Productions

Lushly scored by longtime Cartoon Saloon collaborators Bruno Coulais and the Irish folk band Kíla, with a gorgeous rendition of Aurora’s “Running with the Wolves” backing a key scene for Robyn and Mebh, Wolfwalkers is a delight not only for its visual beauty and fantastic characters and story. Everything comes together in this film, not only for its insular experience, but for the entire trilogy. Ancient pagan legends of Ireland are brought with these films into the modern world with a reverence and intuitive gentility only truly found within the hearts of children – children like Brendan of Kells, Ben by the sea, and kind Robyn Goodfellowe, all facing the awakening of such strange primeval magic in their daily lives with tentative enthusiasm and discovering their true strengths.

Wolfwalkers is the perfect ending to an outstanding series of storybook animated features because it is a film that exudes so much utter love – love for the tradition of story, love for Ireland, love for the influence of change and the jubilant purity of worlds discovering one another. Marrying the modern to the traditional, both in art and in story, is a particular talent for Tomm Moore, and one cannot help but wonder what incredible world he will open to us in future projects.

--Dana Culling