Wolfwalkers

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Wolfwalkers
"The seamless, flowing quality of the animation is what will capture older viewers' attention first - and hold it." | Photo: Apple TV

They brought you The Secret Of Kells and Song Of The Sea. Now from the same team comes Wolfwalkers, a beautifully presented fable which reflects on the history of English conquest in Ireland and the powerful cultural traditions that helped the Irish to resist. Where illuminated manuscripts wove their way through the first film and the sea flowed through the second, here we are caught between two worlds: the grey rigidity of the city and the wild, tumbling chaos of the forest that surrounds it - a forest where wolves dwell.

When young Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) first arrives in Ireland, the city is all she knows - and before this one, the orderly landscapes of England, where she was born. Her father (Sean Bean) is a hunter, brought hither to eradicate the wolves that are making the city's inhabitants loathe to venture outside its walls are reap the bounty of the forest. it's difficult for the girl, who spends much of her time alone in streets where local kids torment her for reasons she can barely understand. Additionally troubled by the constraints of girlhood, she longs to be a hunter herself - and when this leads her out into that wild, dangerous territory, she discovers that all is not what it seems. Running with the wolves are shapeshifters who flit easily between human and lupine form. One of them, the high spirited Mebh (Eva Whittaker), becomes her friend.

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Our young heroines face many challenges in a film that takes a folkloric perspective on historic events. Mebh needs help to free her imprisoned mother from the clutches of the sinister Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) whilst Robyn is discovering a side to herself that she never new existed, and needs to figure out how to keep it from getting her killed. This may be a film aimed at kids as much as adults, but execution is still very much a prospect under the brutal English regime. So is being forced into domestic drudgery, and life definitely looks better for women on the outside of the walls.

Based on woodcuts from the period, the city is a mass of steep walls and narrow lanes, tiny windows and sharp-angles roofs. The forest, by contrast, draws on Celtic art with its profusion of circles and loops. Mebh's face is round, her hair a billowing orange cloud, her body comfortably curled up when she's not in her more sinuous wolf form. Robyn's narrow, upright form gradually softens and curves as Ireland casts its spell on her. If there's a nationalistic aspect to the story, it's the sort that says that anyone is welcome if they accept this cultural embrace. The Lord Protector, however, remains fiercely angular and four times the size of the girls, riding a horse which moves more like a machine. He's the kind od bad guy who will prompt young viewers to seek refuge behind the sofa.

What of the wolves? They're properly scary in places, and there are hints that they do savage deeds. In others, however, they are playful and puppyish. Though her father sounds a cautionary note, Robyn's courage in overcoming her fear of them and engaging with her playful side will inspire children in the audience. She and Mebh are very different but they're both great young heroines, and friendship and love of family are strong themes throughout.

The seamless, flowing quality of the animation is what will capture older viewers' attention first - and hold it. Though it occasionally uses 3D techniques and there's some innovative work involved in creating the 'wolf vision' that shows us the beasts' perspective, most of it is traditional 2D work, making clear that there is still a good deal that can be done with this form. It's endlessly beguiling, like the magic of the forest, making for a film that whole families will want to watch again and again.

Reviewed on: 04 Feb 2021
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Animation set in the Ireland of the Cromwell period, when a young apprentice hunter comes to Ireland to wipe out the last pack... only to discover the magical world of the wolfwalkers.

Director: Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart

Writer: Will Collins, Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart

Starring: Sean Bean, Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Simon McBurney, Tommy Tiernan, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Jon Kenny, John Morton, Nora Twomey, Paul Young, Niamh Moyles, Oliver McGrath, Sean Bean, Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker

Year: 2020

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: Luxembourg, Ireland, US

Festivals:

London 2020

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