Friday, November 20, 2020

Wolfwalkers howls with glorious animation and vibrant characters

Wolfwalkers concerns Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) who lives with her father Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) in a kingdom ruled with an iron fist by The Lord Protector (Simon McBurney). Bill makes a living setting traps for wolves in the nearby forest, a task Robyn wishes to help her dad with. While secretly following Bill, Robyn stumbles upon the leader of the local wolfpack, a young girl by the name of Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whittaker). She's a Wolfwalker, a being whose able to put her consciousness into a wolf whenever she's asleep. Mebh and Robyn develop an unlikely friendship, one that will be tested as The Lord Protector begins a plot to destroy the nearby forest.

In an age where animation is trying so hard to emulate reality, Wolfwalkers reminds us the wonderous sights only animation could create. Nothing we see here could be replicated in reality and that's a compliment of the highest order. The animators here are determined to create something as imaginative as the best fairy tales. Wolves leap through the air like dolphins jumping out of the water. Wide shots of the kingdom and surrounding valley look like something you'd find on a quilt Heck, rather than conjuring up the Uncanny Valley, the animation in Wolfwalkers frequently evokes Richard Williams' detailed artistry on his unmade Prince and the Pauper movie. 

It's all so gorgeous-looking, to the point that Wolfwalkers made me want to immediately run out and watch the other movies Toon Saloon has produced. If they're half as stunning as Wolfwalkers, I'm sure they're incredible. Accompanying this glorious animation is a sharp script by Will Collins that does one of my favorite things any kid-oriented movie  can do; not talk down to its target audience. Wolfwalkers is totally appropriate for any child to watch but it's also not dumbing down  its story. It's not afraid to reference real-world tensions between Irish settlers and English natives nor is it wary of even tackling religion through its story.

Specifcally, The Lord Protector's villainy is explicitly shown to be motivated by a toxic relationship to theology. Like slaveowners or owners of bakeries who refuse to sell cakes to gay people, The Lord Protector believes his fidelity to the Lord excuses his wretched behavior. This isn't played off as subtext but a critical on-screen element. To boot, Wolfwalkers doesn't sand the edges of how Bill and even Robyn can hurt those they love in the name of surviving under an oppressive regime. The motivations for those actions are presented with a similar level of starkness, particualrly a late scene where Bill is upfront of how "afraid" he is of losing Robyn.

By refusing to sugercoat its darker material, Wolfwalkers succeeds on numerous fronts. For one thing, it demonstrates an admirable level of conviction in the intelligence of children. For another, such moments lend a sense of distinctly human emotion to the proceedings. That's another great element of Wolfwalkers, the characters are such engaging creations. Mebh is an especially delightful character, one who immediately separates herself from the assortment of feral woodland children running around the modern animated kids movie landscape. Both the animation and voicework from Eva Whittaker lend Mebh a totally idiosyncratic personality thriving on energy and gusto. 

The balance between such engaging characters and an enjoyably over-the-top fairy tale involving wolves and protecting the forest reminded me of nothing so much as Princess Mononoke. Much like that Studio Ghibli masterpiece, Wolfwalkers is also a testament to what a wonderful medium of expression animation is. In a time when the value of animated films are judged by how lucrative their live-action remakes are, Wolfwalkers arrives with an elegant simplicity and visual imagination to spare. It's as much of a rare being as the titular mystical creature. Just like the Wolfwalkers themselves, the movie Wolfwalkers is something to be cherished and adored. 

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