TIFF 2020: Wolfwalkers Review

It’s reassuring to see today’s children receive a film like Wolfwalkers. This animated feature isn’t a toy commercial. There are no tie-ins for cereal, candy, or video games. Wolfwalkers is not a sequel, nor does it have one already in the works. It is, however, part three in a thematic trilogy. Wolfwalkers is the final instalment in Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s cycle of films inspired by Irish folklore. After their magical adventures The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014), Wolfwalkers brings a body of work full circle with its best entry yet. Sometimes good movies do come in sets of three!

The three films aren’t related aside from their thematic parallels, but don’t miss out. Wolfwalkers should inspire viewers to explore Moore and Stewart’s prior works. (Moore directed the previous two, and Wolfwalkers marks Stewart’s first directing credit after collaborating on both films.) As with Kells and Sea, Wolfwalkers gets has roots, both aesthetically and narratively, in Irish lore. The tale whisks audiences to 17-Century Kilkenny where knights and noblemen still rule the land. Like medieval villages that feared dragons, the people of a small Irish kingdom seal themselves behind a tall wall. They fear the wolves in the nearby woods. Lord Protector Cromwell (Simon McBurney) vows to eradicate the creatures and hires an English hunter, Goodfellowe (Sean Bean), to succeed.

Into an Enchanted Forest

Goodfellowe’s daughter, Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) has little reason to fear the wolves. She knows from her father’s work that wolves have more right to be afraid of us than us of them. Robyn runs wild in the woods, though, eager to help her father excel with his new task. Her adventures lead her to a pack of wolves guided by a young girl, Mebh (Eva Whittaker), with wild red hair. Mebh is a shape-shifter, what’s known as a wolfwalker as she transforms into a four-legged beast by night. Robyn soon finds herself roaming among the wolfwalkers and confronting her prejudices about the unknown. The hunter becomes the hunted as she learns the key to Kilkenny’s salvation.

As Robyn explores the world of the wolfwalkers, Moore and Stewart conjure an enchant forest. Wolfwalkers creates a vividly imaginative world that springs to life like a storybook imagined in the mind. The animation of Wolfwalkers is a true marvel of the mind. It creatively draws upon Celtic iconography and tradition, creating a contemporary embodiment of the lore that inspired it. The hand-drawn and exquisitely detailed frames bear the labour that went into making them. The film’s sense of humor and human tragedy is mature yet sensitive. Wolfwalkers delivers a fantastic feat of world-building as each element—the visuals, the story, and the magical music—transport a viewer to a faraway land. Its magic will captivate audiences young and old.


An Adventure for All Ages

Moreover, Robyn is a heroine with fearless energy to match the youths of Kells and Sea. That the film gives not one but two strong roles to young girls speaks to the talent behind the scenes. Joining Moore and Stewart as a producer is Secret of Kells co-director Nora Twomey. Also the director of the Oscar-nominated The Breadwinner, Twomey’s hand is apparent on this forward-thinking film. Unlike most commercial animated features, Wolfwalkers neither insults its audience nor panders to them. There are no snappy sidekicks and no pop-culture references. The filmmakers know the power of the imagination as well as the power of representation. Kids of all kinds need stories like this one. It harkens back to the best days of Disney—far, far back—when great tales and characters fuelled their adventures.

Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells both received well-deserved Oscar nominations and a third seems inevitable. However, a win for the Wolfwalkers team feels long overdue. The film is proof that great animated features do exist. One just needs to wander deeper into the woods to find them.

Wolfwalkers premiered at TIFF 2020 and streams on AppleTV+ later this year.