WOLFWALKERS (2020) is gorgeous to look at and a spellbinding adventure. Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, who worked on THE SECRET OF KELLS (2009) and SONG OF THE SEA (2014), WOLFWALKERS is another dive into Irish heritage, history, and mythology. WOLFWALKERS is full of wonderful Celtic designs and is a stunning work of art.
WOLFWALKERS is very reminiscent of the beloved Studio Ghibli. It has a striking resemblance to the plot of Hayao Miyazaki’s PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997). It too features the war between men and nature, and a girl who lives with wolves. Other MONONOKE plot beats appear, such as the translucent spirit of a dead leader travelling through the forest. WOLFWALKERS also contains wonderful hand-drawn images, made with thick charcoal lines and the occasional abstract minimalism of a film like THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA (2013). Especially in visual moments that show the point of view of the wolves, WOLFWALKERS descends to just outlines and colourless backgrounds. Though WOLFWALKERS also has intricately detailed backgrounds, clearly drawn with care and passion. The comparisons to Ghibli are not made lightly, or to downplay the unique cultural sensibilities of WOLFWALKERS. But the similarities highlight that WOLFWALKERS is also a film that has real heart and soul, and is rooted in tradition, history, old storytelling, nature, and a refusal to conform to the fads of modern day cinema. This is a film of beauty, not realistic visuals or cheap gags.
Drawing from Irish history, WOLFWALKERS is set during the English occupation of Ireland. The villainy of Oliver Cromwell looms large over the film. Cromwell’s actions in Ireland were barbaric, so he is a perfect cartoon villain. His desire to cut down the forest in WOLFWALKERS stems from a need to subjugate the Irish population. While WOLFWALKERS is a film pure in soul, it is willing to face the dark sides of man. It has dark moments, full of haunting music and growling wolves. This is not a patronising film, nor one for very young children. Instead it’s the sort of animated film which treats children with maturity and respect. That is all too rare nowadays.
This film is totally wonderful in many ways. The voice cast are excellent and the film is rich in Irish and Yorkshire accents. Sean Bean is the best known actor and has a sizable role. WOLFWALKERS also has a fantastic score, by Bruno Coulais and Irish band Kíla. One of the best scenes is a montage of self-discovery, set perfectly to Running With the Wolves by Aurora Aksnes. It’s an emotional experience, drawing on strong spiritual elements and a series of well-considered character arcs. Yet the film uses varying visual styles to convey these emotional states, including boxing in the screen with black lines during sad or angry moments. However it is also a film of friendship and the story of two very different girls becoming friends. They both feel lonely and find each other. In those moments WOLFWALKERS is often delightful fun. This film is a really amazing piece of cinema, with both darkness and happiness drawn from the same things. It’s a film of tears and smiles. Perhaps it would be unwise to overstate things, but WOLFWALKERS is possibly the greatest English-language animated film of the past few years.