With The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner all nominated in various Oscars seasons, Irish animation studio, Cartoon Saloon, keeps on knocking on the door. Along with American stop-motion studio, Laika, the studio has established themselves as serious contenders for prominent names like Pixar, Dreamworks, and even Ghibli. Their new animated feature, Wolfwalkers, directed by their first-in-commande, Tomm Moore, and veteran art director, Ross Stewart, is likely to be following the path of its predecessors with its heartwarming story and compelling visuals.
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Wolfwalkers, similar to Cartoon Saloon’s first two featured animations, is inspired by Celtic legend about shape-shifting wolves that walk among men and wolves interchangeably. Set in the 1600s, where nature, magic, and Christianity walked hand in hand in England-occupied Irish land, the story revolves around a young girl, Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey), whose father (Sean Bean) is tasked by tyrannical, wolf-hating Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) to hunt down everys single wolf in the nearby woods. Robyn, a hunter apprentice herself, attempts to prove to his father that he’s worthy of an assistance by going wolf-hunting alone only with helps from her eagle friend, Merlyn. In a twist of event, she instead encounters and befriends a wolf-walking girl and a leader of a wolf pack named Mebh (Eva Whittaker), in a quest to find her wolf-mother who had been captured by townsfolk.
Similar to Moore’s previous movies, Wolfwalkers takes full admirations on how archaic Irish folks connect their lives with the nature. At a glance, the narrative shares a fundamental principle with Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke in the heart of the story; but, it’s completely independent. However, same as the predecessors, Moore and Stewart (stepping up into directorial gig for the first time) make the story simple and accessible but never losing the magic. While this might also mean that some elements, especially the villain, becomes a tad too one-dimensional, Wolfwalkers compensates it with the focus on humanity as in how Robyn puts forward her conscience to help Mebh instead of turning her in.
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Simplicity is the key in building the narrative and, in doing so, Wolfwalkers does not shy away to explicitly deliver the message and the lesson from the story as if it’s a children’s storybook. It’s not entirely wrong, though. Moore and Stewart present this movie a slightly different visually from previous Cartoon Saloon’s ventures. With hand-drawn visuals and muted color palette inspired by Celtic arts and children’s playbook, the movie looks entirely committed in awe-inspiring young illustrators. Character designs are unsophisticated, but that doesn’t make the whole movie less sophisticated. The artisanal touch emanates with one visual prowess to another without making it exaggeratingly intimidating and shifting the focus from its heartfelt story.
In compensating the one-dimensional characters, Moore and Stewart along with Song of the Sea scriptwriter, Will Collins, consult Pixar’s veteran ins story development, Jerrica Cleland, and eventually come up with an extra layer to make sense of it. The England colonial greediness takes the deserved blame as a force of blatant evil. With the extra layer, the story finds a ground to develop on another to focus on Robyn and Mebh’s connection and in Robyn’s untimely dilemma. Even when some parts slip to melodrama, Wolfwalkers‘ emotionally and magically invested plot never ceases to amaze.