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.
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+.