“There are so many versions of every story because every storyteller tells the story differently.”
– Tomm Moore
Wolfwalkers is the latest addition to Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon’s growing oeuvre, one that already includes brilliant works like the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. Co-director Tomm Moore called it “the final panel of our Irish folklore triptych.” When most studios are making the switch to CGI, it is refreshing to see the stunning hand-drawn animation style and the unique visuals.
Set in mid-seventeenth century Kilkenny, Ireland, Wolfwalkers opens with a charming scene from a seemingly tranquil forest that is quickly disrupted by the motion of a woodcutter’s axe. The film presents the early threats of colonisation and deforestation through the binary of nature and culture. Our protagonist is Robyn Goodfellowe, a young girl who idolises her father and wants to be a hunter like him but is constantly restricted by the conservative society of English settlers and her father who wants to curtail her liberty in the name of security. He replaces the hunter’s hood on her head with a bonnet and puts a flower in her hair. However, the ever-defiant Robyn does not give up and heads out of town anyway, armed with a crossbow and aided by her pet bird.
The central theme of Wolfwalkers is this dichotomy between the town and the forest. Scared townspeople don’t know what to do about a pack of wolves which haunts the nearby forest, constructing their own myths about the forest in order to substantiate their fears. Local legends speak of human-wolf hybrids called “wolfwalkers” but such rumours are dismissed by the authoritarian Lord Protector, a military leader who is focused on controlling nature by restraining it with the chains of modernity. His motto is:
“What cannot be tamed must be destroyed.”
Robyn is the perfect protagonist for such a film because she sets a wonderful example by not succumbing to the gender roles of the time. Throughout the film, she keeps insisting that she is strong enough to break out of the oppressive machinations of society but it is only made possible when she meets Mebh: an actual wolfwalker who can turn into a wolf and command a pack of adorable wolves. Mebh is the one who shows Robyn that the freedom she yearns for can be found in the anarchy of the forest. The film slowly deconstructs the myths that demonise the wolves and wolfwalkers by calling them beasts and witches, revealing that they are individuals who are just trying to protect their land.
Although many of the themes that the film tackles are derivative (the most obvious influence is Hayao Miyazaki’s epic ecocritical masterpiece Princess Mononoke), the animation is the most fascinating aspect of the film. Wolfwalkers employs a change in perspective whenever the scenes switch from the town to the forest. The town is often shown as a two-dimensional painting without any depth and when the characters are outside the town, its representation is almost perpendicular to the rest of the world which signifies that the town is a dead end or just a prison wall. In contrast to that, the forest is always deep and three-dimensional as a metaphor for the limitless liberty it has to offer.
Like many other works of the same genre, Wolfwalkers’ examination of an alternate history culminates in an epic battle between the wolfwalkers and the humans who cannot tolerate the presence of the “Other”. Forests burn and nature is violated. To the film’s credit, it does not just employ a change in perspective through the animation but also the narrative. Robyn’s father, a hunter by profession, becomes a wolfwalker himself and learns to see the world through the eyes of the wolves he previously hunted. The directors called this phenomenon “wolf-vision” and it is actually a frequent gameplay feature in video games but Wolfwalkers manages to take it to the philosophical realm.
Wolfwalkers might be guilty of using familiar archetypes and motifs but it presents them as a part of its own unique artistic vision. With its relevant questions about environmental destruction, evils of colonisation and proto-feminism, Cartoon Saloon’s latest work makes a strong case for being one of the better animated features of 2020.