(121920) Whenever one thinks of animation studios, the main ones one would think of would
be either Disney and Pixar from the West and Studio Ghibli overseas. Then on the
lesser known side, there would be studios like Laika and Aardman studios. But
there is one that is even more obscure and that is called the Cartoon Saloon,
based in Kilkenny, Ireland.
Although they have only made three feature-length films (in addition to their
latest), they have all been very well received by both critics and audiences.
First it was The Secret of Kells (which was based on forest sprites); then it
was Song of the Sea (which was based on selkies; mythological beings than can
transform from human to seal) and following them was The Breadwinner (which was
about the effects of war from the viewpoint of Middle Eastern/Islamic culture).
But what makes their films special is their strong adherence to hand-drawn
animation, their distinct storytelling that harkens back to their Irish roots
and their lack of patronizing towards their target audience. Led by major
stalwarts Tomm Moore, Paul Young and Nora Twomey, Cartoon Saloon is something to
Which leads us to their latest project, Wolfwalkers. From the looks of the
premise, the studio has gone back to the fantasy genre and from their sterling
(if underseen) reputation promises anything; their latest film is a stunner.
Set in 17th century Ireland, Honor Kneafsey stars as Robyn Goodfellowe, the
headstrong and resilient daughter of Bill (Sean Bean), a hunter (assigned to
hunt wolves by the Lord Protector, voiced with menacing relish by Simon McBurney)
who constantly worries for her daughter’s wellbeing due to the ongoing conflict
between their people and the wolves in the woods. One day, while venturing out
in said woods, Robyn encounters a Mebh (Eva Whittaker) a Wolfwalker, who has
magical healing powers and lives alongside both humans and wolves.
The pair bond over time and Mebh mentions her mother Wolfwalker Moll (Maria
Doyle Kennedy), who has been absent since she ventured into the woods as a wolf
and never returned. Robyn, relating to Mebh’s predicament due to her own
loneliness without a mother, promises to help her. But it comes with a cost as
it may be the catalyst that will pit the two sides in all-out war.
Does Wolfwalkers live up to the high standards of Cartoon Saloon? Absolutely. It
is arguably their best film yet. Wolfwalkers is a fantastic effort that both
children and adults will definitely enjoy. The story itself may have some
fantasy tropes that are reminiscent of other works (the themes of
environmentalism are reminiscent of Studio Ghibli films) but director Moore
instills the story with visually enrapturing animation.
The hand-drawn animation, the storybook picturesque style lends such beauty to
the story that it becomes quite euphoric yet immersive in how it introduces the
audience into the world (pre-Celtic fantasy) without needless exposition. The
animators are also not into smoothing out their animation to the point that it
looks sterile. The free-form drawings have lots of traces all over it as if they
appear to be unfinished; it looks storyboarded on screen without it actually
being storyboarded, making the imperfections look ironically perfect in an
The scriptwriters Ross Stewart and Will Collins (in addition to Moore) also
manage to create distinct characters that are easy to relate to while having
enough human complexities to make them stand out. Robyn is outgoing and yet
restrained to reach her full potential by her overprotective father and yet in
spite of this, she appears to be similar to her father than one would expect;
which lends tension to her and the character of Mebh. As for her character, she
begins to bear an ill will towards humans which ironically goes against the
implications of a healer and her role in being the true bridge between wolves
and humans. The flaws and contradictions of said characters are refreshing to
see; especially when viewed in comparison to Disney animated films where they
are mainly uninteresting ciphers at worst.
The filmmakers also never dilute the seriousness of the themes at hand and trust
the audience enough to understand the ramifications of the actions of the
characters. Whether it would be about greed, war, sacrifice and standing up for
what is right, the drama (aided by the rousing score by Irish band Kila and
frequent Saloon collaborator Bruno Coulais) is emotionally rousing and deeply
The British/Irish voice cast lends much enthusiasm and passion to the project.
Kneafsey and Whittaker are enjoyable and easy to root for as empowered
protagonists as well as their poignant friendship. Bean is believably conflicted
as the worrisome father who has his reasons; but those reasons may be more
peculiar than one would think.
With mesmerizing and astounding animation, a top-notch cast, emotionally
poignant storytelling and tons of fantasy fun, Wolfwalkers is not only one of
the best animated films of 2020, but it is also one of the best films in 2020,
period. Highly recommended.