There’s a sequence partway through Wolfwalkers where a wolf runs through the forest in a high sensory state as we follow along through this ‘tunnel’. It’s worth pointing out that this is a hand-drawn, 2D animated sequence. As is the rest of the film (with some small digital effects), resulting in what I can say is one of the most beautiful animated films in the last 20 years. I’m honestly struggling to find a film more beautiful. Some of Studio Ghibli's best work manages to be as good, but it would be tough to say which is the better looking.
In an age where 3D animated movies are not just preferred but the default, Wolfwalkers reminds us how stunning hand-drawn animation can be and why, when at the top of their game, 2D animated films can't be beaten on looks.
Wolfwalkers is based around the Irish folklore of people being cursed to live out their lives as wolves. So far, so ‘heard-it-before. However, the movie takes a much different, lighter approach and frames becoming a wolf as becoming the authentic version of yourself.
The main character, Robin, dreams of being a hunter, is proficient with her crossbow and even has a pet falcon. Meanwhile, her father (Sean Bean, all duty and obligation, in a role similar to his one in Game of Thrones) is working under the employment of The Lord Commander to root out the wolves who guard the forest and are hampering the attempts to knock it down. The Lord Commander is, in all but name, Oliver Cromwell, historically a prominent villain and oppressor in Ireland.
Without spoiling too much, Robin meets a 'Wolfwalker’ by the name of Mebh, who can turn into a wolf when she wants and has been raised in the forest. This makes her start to challenge her Father’s and society’s expectations for her as well as beginning to fight back against The Lord Commander’s destructive, oppressive reign.
Robin (Honor Kneafsey) is an immediately identifiable character. Full of life and inner strength while also sensitive and thoughtful. Combined with Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a very talkative and often brash girl, they make a great pairing and engaging to watch. Both young performers are great, but it’s Whittaker who really steals the show. There’s bringing a character to life, and then there’s her performance as Mebh. It’s hard to emphasise how much it brings to the film. Robin is our conduit into the story and the straight character. The only other main characters are Robin’s father and The Lord Commander, and they are very much supporting roles. Mebh could quite easily have been written and performed as an annoying loudmouth, but Whittaker’s infuses her with wit, passion, anger and a touch of sadness to power the story.
The story itself is excellent, yet very simple. While the legend of the Wolfwalker is based in Irish folklore, it’s hardly unique, and the story certainly contains hints of some of Ghibli’s work. The most obvious being Princess Mononoke. However it never feels old and apart from the maybe protracted climax, runs along at a great pace, never treading water.
The climax is probably the only real criticism of the film. Though while it could have done with some trimming, it’s not like it feels laboured at all an is always stunning to look at.
Wolfwalkers reminds us how stunning hand-drawn animation can be
Which brings us to the animation, the real triumph of this film.
Not only are there lush, beautiful and detailed backgrounds but several animated styles are used. The film doesn’t just try to create lots of great styles for the sake of it, though. There is an incredible amount of thought into everything. The Lord Commander’s troops appear in this block style of animation while Mebh and the forest are in this free-flowing, loose style. We have scenes with a deep field of visions like the freedom of the forest.
Conversely, we see scenes of peril or just oppression within the township where backgrounds and the subjects are claustrophobically packed together. There are even small, fun touches like when some sheep are tipped out of a cage, and they keep their square shape for a moment. If you don’t want to go back for the story (you will), you’ll at least want to go back to marvel at the visuals.
Cartoon Saloon are a relatively young studio, still independent and with only a handful of films so far. However, they’ve shown that size is no substitute for talent. I hope they manage to stay independent and keep producing stunning pieces of work like this. There’s no reason to suspect they won’t.
If there is any justice, Wolfwalkers will win an Oscar. In the meantime, this is quite simply the perfect film to sit down to watch at Christmas with all your family. It's beautiful, uplifting, funny, charming, thrilling, shocking and ultimately incredibly enjoyable—a wonderful, well-needed treat to finish off the year.
Watch Wolfwalkers now on Apple TV+
This review first appeared on Screen Times.