With Wolfwalkers (2020), Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon boldly takes the baton from their previous film, The Breadwinner (2017), which waded into the Taliban takeover of Kabul for an all-ages cartoon, by using Oliver Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland in the mid-seventeenth century as a backdrop. But the filmmakers once again show a great deal of sensitivity in depicting the brutality of those who’ve come before them, avoiding getting lost in the complex factional politics of the eras they take inspiration from, and instead pulling a glowing thread of folkloric universality from the bloodsoaked tapestry of human history.
Indeed, as with Cartoon Saloon’s feature film debut The Secret of Kells (2009), which was animated in a style evocative of illuminated medieval manuscripts, the hand-drawn, proudly two-dimensional style of Wolfwalkers resembles a seventeenth-century tapestry or woodcut in motion. The small independent studio’s unique aesthetic sensibility, which has garnered them critical accolades and Oscar nominations, is still stamped across their work, despite their latest being released on the very mainstream and entirely digital platform of Apple TV. But there’s no mistaking the gorgeously stylized art of Wolfwalkers, which collapses perspective entirely to make of your screen the flat canvas it really is, for the homogenized (however lovely they look), expensive 3-D textural photorealism of mainstream American animation studios like Disney/Pixar and DreamWorks. As someone who has loved many of the latter studios’ films (I believe that the Toy Story series belongs among our finest contemporary science-fiction stories about automatons and artificial life) while tiring of their often unadventurous visuals, I was thrilled to see a Western animated film that revels in different cultural and artistic influences that don’t just primarily encompass the barely three-decades-old output of the same studios making these movies.
Wolfwalkers isn’t as deeply tragic as The Breadwinner or as beguilingly minimalist in its storytelling as The Secret of Kells, but it’s no less of an artistic achievement. Directors Tomm Moore (who directed The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea) and Ross Stewart, along with co-writers Jericca Cleland and Will Collins, break down the history of Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland and war against Royalists and Catholics to its base elements to create a folk fairytale: a walled city (Kilkenny, which Cromwell besieged and took over, and now houses the studio itself), a villainously tyrannical lord (Cromwell, unnamed but for his later real-life title of “Lord Protector” of the short-lived Commonwealth of England) in a castle, a populace of fearful townsfolk who long to break free of the yoke of said lord (the Irish, subjugated by the English). A perfect setup for the fictional elements of a bordering forest that holds magical beings (the titular wolfwalkers, who can jump between human and wolf forms, and have powers like healing and communicating with other animals), and a young girl constrained by the norms of a patriarchal society drawn into adventure (Robyn Goodfellowe, the daughter of an English huntsman, Bill, who is charged by the Lord Protector with eradicating the wolves in the woods). It’s all told with clarity and humour that will appeal to its younger audiences—but like any good children’s movie, there are rich subtextual undercurrents to be found for those, young and old, who want to dig deeper.
For one thing, Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) is English—and thus starts out on the side of the invaders, unwanted in this town she’s been forced to move to. Her father, while being a gentle and loving parent (played with an aching fragility by Sean Bean), is nonetheless beholden to the conquerors of Kilkenny. Bill is directly responsible for helping the Lord Protector “civilise” the very wilderness where Robyn finds friendship and liberation with a young, flame-haired wolfwalker, Mebh (Eva Whittaker). Robyn is already reluctant to follow the gender norms expected of her; the puritanical Lord Protector tells her father she belongs, like all women, in the scullery, and the boys in town make fun of her aspirations of becoming a hunter. But Mebh proudly declares that she’s “no girl, [she’s] a wolfwalker.” Like the wolves in her pack, Mebh’s entirely free of having to follow the rigid gender norms of seventeenth-century puritan culture. Which makes her tribe the perfect found family for restless, rebellious Robyn. It might not be explicitly stated or take primacy in the narrative, but Wolfwalkers, in this way, acknowledges the queer readings of werewolf myth.
Unlike the monstrous, alien Viking invaders in The Secret of Kells, the English invaders here are very much human, making the Lord Protector’s (Simon McBurney) familiar, recognizable evil all the more terrifying. While pre-Christian ‘paganism’ was portrayed as dark and threatening in The Secret of Kells, the religion of the Viking “Crom-worshippers,” from the perspective of the Christian monks in the Abbey of Kells, Wolfwalkers switches perspective to empathize with the pagans hundreds of years later. While Mebh talks of the wolfwalkers’ way of life to Robyn in animistic terms, describing their connection to and harmony with nature, it’s clear from the runic standing stones (which bear patterns that are also visible in the light that the wolfwalkers emit when using magic) in the forest that she and her mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy) are the last of a broader culture only hinted at, and in danger of being wiped out.
Robyn begins the film daydreaming of hunting wolves like her father. These daydreams are replaced with empathy when she finds herself kin to those wolves, when an accidental (or not entirely; it makes just as much narrative sense that Mebh subconsciously wants to expand her tribe) scratch of her new friend Mebh’s fangs turns her into a wolfwalker too. Robyn is thus stranded between worlds—she’s English, of her beloved father’s (and late mother’s) blood, blood shed and mingled with the trace of the indigenous wolfwalkers, who predate even the conquered Christian (though the film understandably doesn’t delve into the division between Catholics and Protestants, which was of great concern to Cromwell) townspeople of Kilkenny. The latter are shown to fear but respect wolfwalkers as pagan forest spirits (like the Vikings in Kells, they’re mentioned to be worshippers of the pre-Christian god Crom Cruach), and think that their forced clearing of the woods for farmland under the mandate of the English is breaking a “truce” made between St. Patrick and the wolfwalkers. But under English rule, the wolfwalkers have been made an undisputable enemy.
While the story is leavened with humour (the exaggerated art style allows for swift tonal shifts, from enhancing the fearsome or beautiful aspects of characters to highlighting slapstick, exuberant physicality when Mebh and Robyn are at play or the townsfolk offer some bumbling comic relief), it’s haunted by the shadow of cultural and ethnic cleansing. In the fire and violence the English bring to the forest, flames jagged as their blades, cannons blasting the trees, there is a clear echo of the genocide that accompanies all colonialism. Unsurprisingly (and evoking Studio Ghibli films like Princess Mononoke, which the filmmakers have mentioned as among their inspirations), the imagery of deforestation and humans at war against the forces of nature also brings to mind the aggression of post-industral “development” and “progress,” an omnipresent threat in this era of global warming and ecological collapse. There is a deep sadness accompanying the film’s beautiful celebration of natural life, a memorialization of vanishing forest spaces.
The Lord Protector’s rhetoric of “taming” the “beasts” in the woods, of the “unacceptable” threat of a wolf within the walls of the town (the wolf being Robyn herself in her lupine form), his hateful fomenting of divisions within a native populace by turning an othered minority into an “invader” will feel disconcertingly familiar. He brings the reluctant townspeople to his side by demonizing the wolves in the forest, and rejecting the respect the townspeople have for the wolfwalkers by painting the legend as indigenous pagan superstition to be purged. The actual invader thus becomes the “protector,” the violent authoritarian a keeper of peace. We know this dance by heart as the twenty-first century relives the fascist threat of past eras, and Wolfwalkers weaves this political complexity into its fairy tale remarkably well, without condescending to younger audiences or trying too hard to connect its historical era to the present.
Ultimately, the film’s greatest success lies in the strength of its relationships, which deepen its archetypal characters and allow it to transcend the rougher (though intriguingly unique) storytelling of The Secret of Kells, which bears many similarities to Wolfwalkers. Whereas that film’s feral shapeshifting wolf-girl, Aisling, played a relatively small role in guiding protagonist Brendan along in his adventure, Mebh is a co-protagonist of sorts to Robyn. Their bond forms the heart of the story, as does their link to their single parents Bill and Moll, who they love but are estranged from (Robyn from Bill because of his allegiance to the Lord Protector, and Mebh from Moll because the latter’s gone missing, leaving only her human form sleeping in their den). In Mebh’s showboating of her powers to Robyn, giggling and calling humans “stinkies” and stealing “town tasties” from woodcutters, we see that she’s a mere pup, despite her ferocity and attendant wolf-pack, who trail her like a bristling cloak. It makes her rapid imprinting on Robyn as a companion deeply touching, since she’s a child who’s alone, the last of her kind (she has her wolves and forest animals, but no other wolfwalkers to turn to).
Wolfwalkers is at its most affecting when the violence of the history happening all around these characters keeps them from being able to care for each other. When Robyn, empowered by her new identity, demands to know why her father insists that they “must do as [they’re] told” by the tyrannical Lord Protector, and Bill answers, his voice riven: “Because I’m scared.” When Mebh curls into her sleeping mother’s arms, asking when she’ll come back, and Moll can do nothing to comfort her daughter because she is trapped in her wolf form, captured while looking for a safer home. All these cut threads between the characters intertwine again in a beautiful pattern as the tapestry of the film completes itself in the final act, which sees the Lord Protector invading the forest as he did Ireland. The climax reaps great emotional rewards by destabilizing the relationships the film establishes so well—forcing each of the main players to reckon with their conflicted allegiances, and making a significant but satisfying diversion from recorded history. The tear-jerking potential of the final act may well rival that of a Pixar classic, but in a way that never feels cheap or imitative of that studio’s famous narrative rhythms. And in a subtle change from the fates of many young women in mainstream western animated films, Robyn ends the film by exiting the social order she was born into, not gaining new respect or ascending to a new and better position in it. She is unbound, like her new companion Mebh, “no girl,” a wolfwalker, in a new found family that exists outside the brutal bounds of our history. For a children’s movie from a studio with a rising, Oscar-nominated profile, it’s as anarchic a sweet and happy ending as you might hope for.