Finlay Chalmers reviews the new Apple TV+ animated film.
From the moment Wolfwalkers starts, you're plunged into a luscious forest of colour and natural beauty. This film is the third in the Irish Folklore trilogy by director Tomm Moore, after The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea.
The film is set in the 17th century, during the Commonwealth period. The English Lord Protector has come to Ireland and is clearing the forest around Kilkenny, where our protagonists live. We're introduced to Robyn, a young English girl, and her father, a hunter, both recent transplants to the city. Robyn is a resourceful girl of action and is desperate to join her father on the hunt for wolves in the forest, much to his protests. A few mishaps later, and Robyn is trapped in the deep forest following a wolf, who turns out to be a magical Wolfwalker – a girl who changes into a wolf while her human body sleeps. But it turns out her mother has gone missing.
As Robyn finds out more about the Wolfwalkers, she finds herself more and more on their side, setting up the film's central conflict between her and her father, who feels intense pressure from the Lord Protector to follow orders and abide by the rules. She's ordered to work in the castle kitchens, in a vain attempt to get her to stop trying to escape the city walls. (We, trapped indoors in late 2020, may feel some empathy there!) And so the film continues, with a series of hijinks and adventures, as well as more serious goings-on.
At its heart, the film is a fable and a well-told one at that. It touches on the subjects of environmentalism, colonialism, and the importance of family. It's a coming-of-age tale about questioning authority. I will not be the first one to do this – and I do not invoke the name lightly – but this, coupled with the visual style, reminded me strongly of the output of Studio Ghibli, particularly Princess Mononoke. But perhaps one should say that Wolfwalkers is more consciously aimed at children than Ghibli's more heavy-hitting works.
Personally, I found the characters' motivations, and dialogue in general, to be the film's weakest aspect – it's definitely one of those films where characters could benefit a lot from sitting down and listening to one another's views more. Some of the characters step right into the zone of caricature, especially the Lord Protector. The tonal shifts between light-hearted and more serious moments were also somewhat jarring.
The visual style, however, is by far the film's strongest part. First of all, the characters are drawn in such a distinctive way that it's hard to compare it to anything else – all made up of sharp corners and edges, and definitely cartoonish. But the backgrounds are simply amazing, again calling to mind films such as Ghibli's The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Each frame looks like a work of art. Moreover, I don't think I have ever seen a work of animation that so deftly expresses characters' emotions and senses in the way that Wolfwalkers does. The wolf characters "see" smells and sounds, expressed as beautiful flowing lines on the screen. Intense moments are amplified by the colours on screen. It's truly pushing the limits of the medium in a worthy way.
Don't let the "kids & family" designation put you off; there is plenty in this film to delight adults too! I was pleasantly surprised by the movie, having nothing to go on apart from the poster before I went into it – I assume those who have seen Moore's previous works will be more inclined to see it automatically. But those of you who like Studio Ghibli, or even those who don't normally go for animation, give it a try. Perhaps some of the dialogue is childish, sure, but the visual pleasure you get from it is well worth it.Wolfwalkers is available only on Apple TV+, which you may have heard about as being a loss-maker for the company - but I'd say it's worth taking out the free trial just to watch it.
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