Outside the trappings of the civilized world, lies the realm of nature, enchantment, and the wild child. These are elements at the heart of both The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, two critically heralded, hand-drawn adventures from Irish animator Tomm Moore. Now, to complete his Irish Folklore Trilogy, he’s teamed with painter/illustrator Ross Stewart to create the familiar yet freshly captivating Wolfwalkers.
Set in 1650 Ireland, Wolfwalkers ushers audiences behind the gates of a fortressed English settlement under the thumb of Oliver Cromwell. There, a young girl named Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) dreams of using her crossbow skills and her friendly pet falcon to aid her father (Game of Thrones’ Sean Bean) in his quest to eradicate the wolves that make life outside the walls perilous. Once she gets her wish, Robyn discovers that the wolves and the woods are not as they seem.
Amid the tangles of trees, Robyn meets Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a small and feral redhead who turns into a wolf at night. It is she who leads the wolves, trying to keep the invasion of English deforestation at bay with their snarls and fangs. She is feared by the ignorant “townies,” who call her “half-wolf, half-witch, half-people.” However, beneath her rambunctious and fearless exterior lies a secret pain, which she soon shares with Robyn. Though these two meet on either end of a weapon, they quickly connect as misfits and kindred spirits.
Moore’s previous films had a young boy at their center, whose relationship with a wild girl challenged his view of the world. Here, Robyn’s story carries with it a queer context, as she is as much an outsider to Cromwell’s settlement as Mebh. Within the walls, girls are meant to dress in pilgrim gowns and spend their days in sculleries, cooking, cleaning, and keeping things as the Lord Protector Cromwell (Simon McBurney) demands. Yet Robyn yearns to frolic in the woods while wearing pants and engaging in behavior considered wrong for a proper girl. Literally raised by wolves, Mebh has no such societal standards, and tears about on four legs, with dirt smudged on her nose, leaves tangled in her hair, and a howl of defiant freedom. They both buck the established gender conventions, and love each other fiercely and devotedly, fighting ferociously to be together.
To me, this read clearly as queer, but as so few kids movies dare be so inclusive, I braced for backpedaling. I cautiously waited for a line that would starkly define the girls’ relationship as purely platonic, something like “she’s like a sister to me!” Yet none came. To be clear, there’s no sexual content in the film, as they are children protagonists. No character in this 17th-century adventure is addressed directly in LGBTQIA+ terminology. However, I suspect many a queer kid will recognize the thrill of a first romance in the love that blossoms between Robyn and Mebh. This film is truly about finding your pack (or chosen family).
Kneafsey and Whittaker bring dynamic energy to the central pair, popping with curiosity, defiance, panic, and excitement as the story weaves from secret caverns to shadowy court halls to a sprawling battle scene. The youthfulness of their voices makes moments of peril powerfully frightening.
Audiences accustomed to Disney-style fairytales may edge into panic during Wolfwalkers’s prolonged climax of good versus evil. The safety net that promises heroes will live is snatched away by the harrowing length of a sequence about saving such a life. Then more blows come, and it seems none of our heroes may be safe from the bigotry and brutality of the conformist colonizer Cromwell. As a grown adult watching this without children to worry about, I was at the edge of my seat in earnest concern for the girls and their families, biological and chosen. (To those who can’t take any more heartbreak right now, SPOILERS: be assured the girls will have a happy ending.)
The magic of Wolfwalkers extends beyond its proudly queer romance and its genuinely thrilling action. Wonders likewise lie in Moore’s unique aesthetic, which is an artful condemnation of the conformity of CG-animation. Rather than uninspired photorealism or soft style intended to sell pastel playsets, Moore breaks from the corporate molds. His characters come in all shapes and sizes, men drawn like walls, women made of big, round circles, and wolves drawn like furry grey waters, flowing through the forest.
Then, there’s the way Moore plays with perspective, something he’s done since The Secret of Kells. He flattens depth of field in the way medieval art makes frame after frame feel like a painting come to life, especially as characters race down a drawn line, revealing it is a pathway, not just a patch of color. Through all this, Moore creates a world that feels rich and limitless. Beyond that, it feels handmade because of the imperfections he and Stewart embrace.
Rather than rapturously rendered CG backgrounds with meticulously color-in-the-lines looks, Wolfwalkers has the impressionist splash of watercolors. The paints blend and merge giving the sense of fallen leaves, well-worn grass, and a hazy sunset in the distance. When it comes to characters, the colors are more in place. However, there Moore and Stewart choose not to erase sketch lines. Under Mebh’s mountain of untamed red hair, lies a faint grey line indicating where her head ends. Similar sketch marks flick across characters, props, and settings, inviting our attention. Rather than being a distraction, they are a cheeky reminder about all the pencil strokes, aching fingers, and human effort that went into creating this whimsical adventure. It’s like those wonderful LAIKA stop-motion behind-the-scenes time-lapses. Instead of playing in the end credits as a treat, this craftsmanship showcase is worked into every frame as an essential ingredient to truly appreciating this art.
Suffice to say, I am in awe of Wolfwalkers. It is beautiful, bold, and alive. It is magical, mesmerizing, and magnificent. It is queer, quirky, and unapologetically political, condemning conformity, environmental destruction in the name of progress, and any authority that dares step on the rights of its people. But perhaps best of all, it should be coming soon.
Apple TV+ has boasted Wolfwalkers will hit its service in 2020. That’s good news for audiences, but bad news for the makers of Onward, The Willoughbys, and Trolls World Tour. As the praise out of TIFF should tell you, Wolfwalkers is an award-season force to be reckoned with.
Wolfwalkers premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of its Special Events slate.
Toronto International Film Festival runs September 10-19. For more on how you can participate, visit the TIFF website.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. Our reviewers are covering the films remotely with the use of screening links.
Header Image Source: TIFF