LFF REVIEW: ‘Wolfwalkers’ (2020) is a Stunning, Delightful Animation

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“A gorgeous 2D animation which tells a riveting story”

Cartoon Saloon isn’t exactly a household animation studio in the public’s eye, but it has still made a mark in the film industry and amongst critics. The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner have each secured the Irish studio Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature, and I have no doubt that their latest feature, Wolfwalkers, will join those ranks. Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, and their army of animators, have crafted a gorgeous 2D animation which tells a riveting story about the friendship of two young girls.

The story takes place in 17th century Kilkenny, Ireland where the English have colonised the town. Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) and her father Bill (Sean Bean) have moved from England so Bill can hunt down the wolf pack that plagues the town. In the forest outside the town walls resides Mebh (Eva Whittaker) and her mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy) who are beings known as Wolfwalkers- people who become wolves separate from their bodies whilst asleep and control the wolf pack living in the forest. Robyn dreams of becoming a hunter like her father and after sneaking out from the confines of Kilkenny, bumps into Mebh. Even with their differences and cultural conflict, Robyn and Mebh quickly form a friendship over their lust for life and adventure outside of their realms. Both being headstrong, independent characters makes it a delight to see their friendship blossom, with witty dialogue and great voice performances from the actors.

Mebh, a young girl in green garb and huge ginger hair, and Robyn, a young girl in medieval workers outfit holding a hawk, sit on a branch in the forest. From 'Wolfwalkers'
Image courtesy of Apple TV+

The overall story will draw comparisons to Ghibli classic Princess Mononoke with its themes of man vs. nature and coexisting with others, which ultimately does make the ending a little predictable. Thankfully, there are some interesting plot twists from the midpoint that will keep audiences on their toes that builds towards a genuinely thrilling third act, even if it does take a little bit longer than it needs to reach that point. The biggest achievement for Cartoon Saloon with Wolfwalkers, however, is not in the story but the animation. This is hands down the most visually stunning animated feature since Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and the most gorgeous 2D animation in years thanks to the marriage of great art direction, wonderful illustration and brilliant animation.

Every frame is vivid and rich with colour and detail: from the dense, swirling forests to the angular, occupied town of Kilkenny. The film isn’t afraid to show off that is is all hand drawn by talented individuals with its sketchy line work and even rough outlines on characters. The character designs are simply a delight too, which draw from classic design principles: Mebh is essentially a bouncy orb, Bill is strong and blocky and the villainous Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) is sharp and angular. Cartoon Saloon use the freedom of animation to enhance the story by using slightly different animation styles, split screen framing and great emphasis on lighting. The studio has made use of every tool and trick in the book.

You may recognise the story of Wolfwalkers, even from other animated features, but it is still an engaging story filled with engrossing characters. The film is above all a masterclass in animation and shows off how powerful and delightful the medium can be when different techniques are used, and talented artists are at the top of their game. Cartoon Saloon deserve to be recognised in the mainstream as a world-class animation studio.

Directed by: Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart

Written by: Will Collins

Produced by: Paul Young, Nora Twomey, Tomm Moore, Stephan Roelants

Cast: Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Simon McBurney

Available on: Apple TV+ from December 11th 2020

Header image courtesy of Apple TV+