Wolfwalkers Exemplifies The Might of Irish Cinema

Animated films have long regaled viewers with their retellings of folk and fantasy legends, a tradition that extends back to the medium’s dawn, and continues here in this feature-length production from Ireland. But this film is not here merely to capitalise on a time-honoured trend – in fact, it’s more likely to establish a new standard for the artform.

In the mid-17th Century, a young girl named Robin Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) moves from England to Kilkenny, Ireland, where her father Bill (Sean Bean) has been tasked with capturing the wolves that prey on the townsfolk. Robin is adventurous by nature, and longs to accompany her father on his wolf-hunting duties; but unfortunately, she is forbidden from venturing beyond Kilkenny’s walls, due to her age and gender.

Robin eventually sneaks through the town’s gates and into the nearby forest, hoping to find and kill a wolf herself. Instead, she encounters Mebh (Eva Whittaker), an unkempt girl of smaller stature who calls herself a Wolfwalker – the name given to a mystical human who lives among the wolves. After an acrimonious greeting, a friendship between the two girls soon develops, and Robin’s perception of wolves with it.

It’s no coincidence that Wolfwalkers is based in Ireland, since the feature is one produced by Cartoon Saloon, a studio based where the film is set: Kilkenny. Just like the studio’s previous releases, The Secret of Kells (2009) and The Song of the Sea (2014), there’s a strong Celtic influence to this production, as evidenced by the voice-cast, soundtrack and screenplay – the latter of which draws its inspiration from an Irish folk tale.

Despite its mythological origins and Cromwellian setting, Wolfwalkers contains a fresh, contemporary story that grows more compelling with each minute that passes. The writing is masterful, with the film seamlessly, gracefully morphing from one conflict to another, the stakes heightening as it does so. If there is one complaint with the screenplay, it’s that the conflict between Robin and her father does come across as hackneyed at times, though never to the extent of annoyance.

Robin (left) and Mebh, the central protagonists of Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers

By far the most appealing element of Wolfwalkers is the distinctive art-style, ensuring it looks unlike any other animated feature – including those previously made by Cartoon Saloon. There’s a storybook-like simplicity to the hand-drawn illustrations, witnessed in both the characters and scenery, that charms profoundly, with the best images undoubtedly found in the forest scenes, their gorgeous watercolour backdrops contrasting heavily with the bleak, yet nonetheless striking, greyscale palette of Kilkenny.

Paired with the animation is an equally wonderful soundtrack, composed by Bruno Coulais with the assistance of Kíla, a traditional Irish folk band. The compositions of Coulais and Kíla make use of acoustic instruments such as fiddles, mandolas and tin whistles, sounding quite ethereal when listened to in isolation, yet suiting the tone and imagery of Wolfwalkers perfectly. There’s even the odd pop song to be heard, including a beautiful re-recording of Aurora’s “Running with the Wolves”.

Yet another aural delight is the cast of voice-actors, most of whom are of Irish nationality or descent. The most famous name, and recognisable voice, to the layperson will be Sean Bean, whose mellow, fatherly tone is perfectly suited to Bill Goodfellowe; Eva Whittaker and Honor Kneafsey are good also as the two girls, but to this author’s ear, the finest vocal performer is Simon McBurney, who provides an understated, menacing turn as Kilkenny’s Lord Protector.

Wolfwalkers is simply exquisite, with great voice-acting, stirring music, magnificent artwork and an elegant narrative combining to form a wondrous experience. Very few feature-length animations come close to this level of quality, making this not only a great film but also, quite possible, the best ever to emerge from Ireland.

Wolfwalkers will be screening online as part of the Irish Film Festival from September 3rd to 12th. For more information, head to the Festival’s official website.

The film is also available for streaming now on Apple TV+.

Australia’s Irish Film Festival Goes Virtual For 2021

The Republic of Ireland typically isn’t a country associated with cinema – aside from Alan Parker’s The Commitments or the works of John Carney, it’s difficult to think of a film that hails from the land of St. Patrick. Yet in recent years, the Republic’s output of productions has grown exponentially, priming themselves as a key player in the industry.

Nowhere is this fact more evident than in the line-up for the annual Irish Film Festival, set to begin this week. Years past have seen the event grace theatres in Sydney and Melbourne; but with both cities currently subject to lockdowns, the Festival will heading online in 2021, allowing cinephiles across Australia to see the very best movies that Ireland has to offer.

Headlining the virtual festival is the Academy Award-nominated Wolfwalkers, a feature-length animation from Cartoon Saloon – the studio behind critically-acclaimed films such as The Secret of Kells (2009) and The Breadwinner (2017). Having already been screened overseas, the picture currently has a near-perfect 99% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, placing it among the highest-rated movies on the site. It’s an exciting prospect, not least because Wolfwalkers has been an exclusive title on Apple TV+ for some months now, making this is a rare opportunity to view the feature outside of its usual confines.

A still from Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers, featuring protagonist Robin and her wolf spirit

Wolfwalkers is something of an outlier at the festival, since most of the films being shown are low-budget features making their Australian debut. The most intriguing of these debuts is Cathy Brady’s Wildfire, which sees a missing woman return to Northern Ireland and reunite with her sister, hinting at a Dragon Tattoo-esque storyline. Similar themes permeate the crime thriller Broken Law, a narrative about two brothers – one a cop, the other an ex-crim – trying to escape their past.

Those looking for a more humorous proposition may enjoy The Bright Side, focusing on a stand-up comedienne who tackles her cancer diagnosis with plenty of dry wit; or the Festival’s other dark comedy offering, Deadly Cuts, telling of a group of hair-stylists who dare to challenge the gangs of Dublin. The two other comedies playing at the Festival are Boys From County Hell, an Irish take on Shaun of the Dead, and A Bump Along the Way, following a middle-aged woman who falls pregnant after a one-night-stand.

For the musically inclined, there’s three music documentaries to whet the palette, including one filmed here in Australia: Áine Tyrrell – Irish Troubadour, charting the subject’s journey from domestic violence victim to renowned folk singer. Phil Lynott: Songs For While I’m Away documents the largely-unknown life of Thin Lizzy’s front-man and Ireland’s greatest rock star, while Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan looks at the pioneer of Celtic punk.

Phil Lynott, the lead singer of Irish rock band Thin Lizzy and subject of Phil Lynott: Songs For When I’m Away

The musical theme continues with the Gabriel Byrne-led Death of a Ladies’ Man, a dramedy inspired by, and paired to, the songs of Leonard Cohen. And for lovers of all things sports, there’s a documentary examining the psyche of Jack Charlton, an enigmatic soccer player from England who became coach of Ireland’s national team, aptly titled Finding Jack Charlton.

Although the selection of twelve films is meagre when compared to its contemporaries, this year’s Irish Film Festival is definitely not short on quality – if this is just a taste of what Ireland has to offer, there’s every chance of the nation becoming a cinematic powerhouse in just a few short years. And while nothing beats the theatrical experience, being able to watch each of these films from your couch, at your own convenience, comes a pretty close second. In short, this Festival is definitely worth checking out.

The Irish Film Festival begins this Friday, September 3rd. For more information, head to the Festival’s official website.