While not much can be said about worldbuilding in Cartoon Saloon’s (the Irish animation studio) previous venture ‘The Breadwinner,’ no one can forget the enchanting, colorful world the studio conjured up in 2014’s ‘Song of the Sea.’ With ‘Wolfwalkers‘ filmmakers, Moore and Stewart harken to medieval times and develop a tale with Ireland and Mythology as the backdrop. Cleverly weaving a folktale around urgent and contemporary themes, the film becomes a wise coming-of-age tale about a girl breaking off the restriction imposed upon her to truly embrace her wild mysticism.
The film opens up with a pack of wolfs attacking villagers who have been trying to cut off the forest cover that surrounds this little kingdom somewhere in Ireland. Soon enough, these trapped villagers retaliate and get hurt when the wolves attack them. Unsure of how to react, the villagers also witnesses the mystical power of one of the women leading the pack. She cures the villager’s injuries and runs away deeper into the woods.
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It’s an interesting way to introduce a folktale. Directors Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart establish that the tale is not going to be a frothy one with adventures abound. The dread of death and destruction is carefully calibrated from the get-go. We are also made aware of a time and place in Ireland where the contemporary world co-existed with the magical one.
What follows this wild opening is an eloquently staged introduction to our protagonist. Robyn is a young, 11-year-old English girl who has traveled all the way from England to this kingdom in Ireland with his father who happens to be a wolf hunter. We are made aware of the fact that Robyn is like an apprentice to her father and is someone who doesn’t believe in doing her chores and would much rather go out and held her father trap the beasts that are roaming around unchecked. She is a rather feisty, stubborn yet confident little kid.
On the other hand, Robyn is also also a wee bit curious. In spite of the restrictions imposed on her, she – accompanied by her only friend and pet bird Merlyn, loves to explore things around her. Even though there’s a strict curfew on the kingdom gates, she manages to flee it every now and then. Her father is quite protective of her as he had lost her mother at a very early age. Which means, she isn’t allowed to accompany him on his wolf-hunting trips even if she so dearly wishes to. She is a sneaky one though. Her wild side doesn’t let her resist the temptation of hunting and understanding the fear of being exposed to a deadly combat situation.
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This prompts her to defy her father’s rule and explore the forbidden lands outside the city walls. On one of these expeditions, she meets her feisty, loveable counterpart in 9-year-old Mebh. She is a Wolfwalker who lives in the wild with a pack of wolves. Her ability to heal and take life for what it is (an adventure if she was asked to put it in one word) really intrigues Robyn who has felt caged in this part of her life. The two of them embark on an unexpected friendship where the wild, unkempt side of Robyn comes out in the open.
This also incorporates the major conflict in the narrative. Mebh’s mother has been missing for quite some time and Robyn promises that she will help her find it. Only to be further scrutinized by her protective father for defying his rules and not listening to the supreme leader of the kingdom who equates wolves to demons. Meanwhile, Robyn faces some strange changes in her personality that forces her to embrace who she truly is.
Coming to the film itself, ‘Wolfwalkers‘ is drenched in cultural history. It takes it’s mystical and imaginative worldbuilding to a deeper, more personal level by just reveling in the folktales it is surrounded by. Moreover, the themes of love and loss have both a personal edge and a poignant foreground that ably handles it’s character’s traits and their motifs. It’s only a huge plus that the animation is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous and the voice acting is superior to anything else you might have seen all year.
The best way to define Wolfwalkers and its thematical elements would be to compare it to Studio Ghibli‘s ‘Princess Mononoke.’ While the latter was about the environment and the calamity that we as humans are causing it, the prior touches on those urgent issues to skim a more personal account of a girl trying to understand her true self. There’s also a strong political undercurrent here that just might replicate and stand along the uprising shown in Ken Loach’s ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley.’ The fascism and the lure of a better future in return for slavery is subtly articulated by showing Robyn’s father and the stand he takes.
Deep down ‘Wolfwalkers‘ remains an amusing, colorful, and enjoyable coming of age tale that doesn’t restrict itself to that definitive arc. The fact that it will cater to a varied number of audiences where everyone has a different take on it, makes it all the more intriguing and urgent. Also, look out for “Running With The Wolves” by Aurora – a track that enchants and puts its spell on you with how incredibly accurate it represents the imagery it is supposed to accompany.
Wolfwalkers Links – Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb