Forget for a moment all the horror films out this weekend. OK, the genre’s resurgence shows no signs of ending and it’s great to see, but there’s another style of cinema that’s flourishing as well. Animation isn’t monopolised by Disney any longer, especially as the House Of The Mouse seems more interested in live action remakes, leaving the door open for other studios. Admittedly, the legendary Studio Ghibli is dormant at the moment, but Bristol’s finest Aardman is flying the flag for stop motion and in Ireland there’s Cartoon Saloon. It’s risen to the top of the pile with The Song Of The Sea and The Breadwinner – and that’s exactly where their latest, Wolfwalkers, is heading.
Blending history with mythology and imagination with reality, it’s the story of two girls who form an unlikely friendship. In an Ireland which already has its divides in 1650, they come from different worlds. Robyn (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) is English, transplanted into Kilkenny because her protective father is a Puritan soldier, charged with defending the town from marauding packs of wolves who threaten not just the people but their livestock as well. Mebh (the voice of Eva Whittaker) is one of the wolfwalkers of the title, part girl, part wolf and blessed with the power of healing. The two come together when the wolves, and the forest they live in, find themselves under attack from the army, which not only aims to destroy the forest and the wolves, but dominate the people of the town. And it complicates matters further that Robyn’s father, Bill (voiced by Sean Bean) is in charge of eliminating the wolves.
On the surface, this looks like a simple story of good versus evil, of questioning authority and following your own beliefs. It’s obvious from the get-go that Robyn has a mind of her own and staying safely at home, as her father wants, is never going to be an option. That aspect of the film will sit comfortably with the younger members of the audience, but there is another side which will resonate with adults, making this a story with huge appeal and which will give them plenty to discuss afterwards. Weighty issues such as colonialism and the environment are an important part of the narrative, with a superbly tyrannical Lord Protector at the centre: we never learn his name but certain facial characteristics leave it in no doubt.
All of which goes to prove that animation is simply not for kids and the artistry that goes into this one, as with Cartoon Saloon’s previous offerings, is exemplary. While the emphasis is on hand drawing, there are certain sequences which mix the more traditional form of animation with the latest in computer technology to impressive effect. And the contrast between the bold, almost austere style used to depict the town, and the freeform, almost impressionistic artwork depicting the forest and the countryside gives us more than simply visual appeal. In the blink of an eye, it makes the point that the town simply doesn’t belong there – certainly not under its current regime, anyway.
If proof were needed – and it probably isn’t – that Cartoon Saloon produces animation like no other, then it’s right here in Wolfwalkers. But it also demonstrates they are masterly storytellers, giving us characters we can respond to, regardless of whether we love them, hate them or if they break our hearts, as well as an engaging, exciting story that you won’t want to end. Escapism? Of course. But of the highest order. And we all need some of that.
Animation, Family, History | Cert: 12 | Wildcard Distribution | In cinemas from 30 October 2020. On Apple TV+ from 11 December 2020 | Dir. Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart | The voices of Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney.