With the more A-list animation studios struggling to grapple with the new constraints placed upon cinema, the current landscape has made room for works by smaller companies to get their moment in the spotlight. Cartoon Saloon have been exploring Irish folklore in animation for a decade, having received much critical praise as well as a quartet of Oscar nominations, but never quite achieving the kind of box office attention you’d hope for. This will hopefully change with Wolfwalkers, their most ambitious and engaging work to date.
Set in colonial-era Ireland, the film follows a hunter's daughter who journeys with her father to a community to help wipe out the last wolf pack in the area. But the course of her narrative changes when she meets a free-spirited girl in the surrounding forest who may very well have the ability to transform into a wolf.
A work of immeasurable beauty, Wolfwalkers has a complexity to it, a willingness to explore difficult themes that other animated films may choose to shy away from. This is a remarkable piece that has much to say about Ireland’s colonial past as well as our relationship with the planet around us. It also taps into the generational differences in how best to deal with complicated problems that have emerged in recent years. All while wrapped in one of the most gorgeous, uplifting films of the year that manages to speak to children as effectively as it does adults.
Co-director Tomm Moore (this time partnering with Ross Stewart) builds on his powerful explorations of Irish folklore in The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea whilst seemingly elevating their form and narrative with Wolfwalkers. From the writing to the animation (static backgrounds with the foreground animated in fluid motions), there is such a tremendous beauty here that it almost overwhelms on a first watch. The voice cast are fabulous here - particularly Honor Kneafsey and Eva Whittaker as the two young figures who bond over the course of the film. The pair bring life and charm to their roles, creating delightful three-dimensional figures the audience immediately bond with. There is soulful supporting work from Sean Bean and Maria Doyle Kennedy, whilst Simon McBurney plays a genuinely interesting antagonist. The world of Wolfwalkers is far from black and white both in terms of its animation and its morality.
Having spent so long producing gorgeous works that feel quite separate from the trends in animation, Cartoon Saloon have crafted a true masterpiece with Wolfwalkers. It’s a complicated beast, often funny whilst being deeply moving. Endearing characters come together for a magical journey that charms and lifts its audience as well as slamming hard into their emotions. This truly is one of 2020’s best.