From their 2009 debut feature, The Secret of Kells, the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has wowed us with a filmography that is predominately fantasy adventures rooted in Irish folklore and fairy tales. With multiple Oscar nominations under their belt, their style of hand-drawn animation is always something to be excited about with every new feature. After their adaptation of Deborah Ellis’ The Breadwinner, the studio returns to their roots, so to speak, with Wolfwalkers, screening at the Manchester Animation Festival.
In the year 1650, a time of superstition and magic, the English hunter Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) and his daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) adjust to their new life in the Irish city of Kilkenny (the actual home of Cartoon Saloon). Ambitious to hunt down the last wolf pack like her father, Robyn explores the forbidden lands outside the city walls. She ultimately befriends a free-spirited girl, Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a member of a mysterious tribe rumored to transform into wolves by night.
If you’ve seen Avatar or How to Train Your Dragon, you will notice familiar steps with this film’s narrative. It is about a protagonist who already feels like an outsider and must decide whether to be with a society that is ruled by fear and hatred, or to be part of a tribe that is as free as nature itself. With its wolf-centric storyline, I wouldn’t be surprised if the filmmakers were inspired by the likes of Princess Mononoke, which mixes epic fantasy with a strong environmental message. Although its eco-message isn’t as powerful as the film is attempting to say, but it has a rich imagination that would rival the best of Hayao Miyazaki.
Using a hand-drawn animation style, there is an incredible amount of detail towards the Celtic-inspired art direction that isn’t shown through sweeping cinematic shots that you can do in 3D animation. Presented in a somewhat painterly quality, the animation is taken to the next level with vivid colors and with very flat blocking. It is as if you’re watching figures in a painting moving sideways. Within the luscious environments, whether it is the man-made architecture of Kilkenny to the folkloric surroundings of the forbidden forest, are characters that are drawn to such simplicity that allows more fluidity in the movements. This is particularly true with Mebh and her wolves that seem to flow to their destinations.
It also helps that the voice-acting really brings these characters to life, from Robyn’s conflicting relationship with her father (voiced with such warmth by Sean Bean), to her energetic friendship with Mebh (due to the great chemistry between Honor Kneafsey and Eva Whittaker). There may be plenty of warmth, but the film is not without its harrowing moments as you can hear the sense of dread from the vocal cast, whilst Simon McBurney brings a slimy tyranny as the antagonist.
One of the most underrated movies of the year?
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