The Plot: Kilkenny, 1650. Lord Protector Cromwell (Simon McBurney) has ordered his occupying English troops to clear the forest to make way for the farmers. That won’t be an easy task, as the forest is occupied by a pack of wolves who are rumoured to be shapeshifters. He therefore sends over to England for hunter Bill (Sean Bean). His young daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) has adjusted to their new life in Ireland, but she is a curious girl who wanders into the woods. There, Robyn encounters Mebh (Eva Whittaker), one of the Wolfwalkers. When sleeping, Mebh transfers her spirit into the form of a wolf. Despite being initially terrified, Robyn befriends Mebh and realises that the wolves don’t mean any harm but will protect their territory. Mebh will need Robyn’s help if her tribe and their home can be saved from the fire…
The Verdict: That’s a resounding four out of four for Cartoon Saloon. The Kilkenny-based animation outfit has quite justifiably built up a reputation as a creative force to be reckoned with. From their debut feature animation The Secret Of Kells to Song Of The Sea and The Breadwinner, Cartoon Saloon has drawn comparisons to the legendary Studio Ghibli in its traditional approach to animation. Ireland often punches above its weight when it comes to animation on the world stage and has some notable schools of animation like Ballyfermot College of Further Education. While the Studio Ghibli comparisons are undoubtedly welcome, Cartoon Saloon have tapped into their own particular style of gorgeously-rendered, eye-popping animation. Their latest film Wolfwalkers is arguably their finest yet. It’s simply too good a film to be appreciated by children alone. It will capture the attention of parents and admiring adults alike.
The script by Will Collins, with story contributions from Jericca Cleland and co-directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, takes an actual historical incident as its basis: Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland and occupation of Cartoon Saloon’s hometown. They then add their own fantastical elements to the story, to blend together convincingly and create a credible world of historical fact with magical Irish folklore. The result is something quite startling – not just visually, but narratively. Mebh are not werewolves or even really shapeshifters. They’re human but leave their physical bodies at night and transform their spirits into wolves to roam with their pack and answer the call of the wild. They’re misunderstood creatures rather than a viable threat, something which Robyn comes to learn as she races to save Mebh’s tribe and becomes a Wolfwalker herself. Animation can only do so much, so it needs a solid backbone to tell a story. The delicately-written script ensures that the characters and environments are well-defined, complementing the animation.
And what animation. Prepare to have your eyeballs dazzled with the kind of swirling, artistic animation with a distinct Irish flavour that has become Cartoon Saloon’s visual trademark. Moore and Stewart contrast the drab grays and blacks of military Kilkenny with the lush, autumnal sweep of the woodland environments. No 3D necessary – this beautifully-rendered world jumps out at you from the opening minutes. Mixing different animation styles and dropping out to black and white / increasing flourishes of colour at key moments creates an otherworldly aspect that is as mystical as the world it is depicting. Trust Cartoon Saloon to eschew Hollywood-style manufactured animation for their own brand of ravishing detail, from leaves to trees to costumes and even hair (a particular stand-out is Mebh’s ever-changing hair). Animation should not be too close to reality, as it’s meant to be a transformative experience. Wolfwalkers is certainly that, for its characters and audience.
Wolfwalkers shows a definite progression and growing confidence in Cartoon Saloon’s style and direction. It also more closely bridges the gap between traditional Irish folklore and an international sensibility, which should ensure wider acceptance and another possible Oscar nomination. It’s a thrilling joy to watch, best experienced on the big screen (if you can), where you can soak in its visual detail and be swept away by the involving story. Enchanting.