Fables are the fabric through which we weave our hopes, our morals from past failures, and our burning idealism into the consciousness of future generations. In the grand tradition of passing down stories and sharing grand memories to young and impressionable minds, Cartoon Saloon and Mélusine productions’ Wolfwalkers, the new animated movie from directors Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea) and Ross Stewart, is a lovely and winningly sincere 2D tale of friendship, acceptance, and the rapid dangers of societal mistrust.
Though it doesn’t tread on newfound territory, this conventional, yet loving film captures the storybook quality of old-fashioned bedtime stories. It’s a warm blanket of an adventure, one that ravishes the soul and tickles the imaginative mind with stunning animation, lively and charming vocal performances, and good-natured storytelling. It’s easy to see why it became a winning favorite at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s the type of idealistic fairy tale we’ve seen before, but in these increasingly disturbing and troubling times, it’s always good to retrace your past steps.
Wolfwalkers is set in a land laced with magical powers hindered by superstition, and it follows Robyn Goodfellowe (voiced by Honor Kneafsey), a young apprentice hunter who makes her way to Ireland along with her father, Bill Goodfellowe (voiced by Sean Bean), to take down the last wolf pack. Under her father’s guidance, she’s been told and taught that wolves are dominant creatures who need to be feared and killed. In an effort to please her father, Robyn ventures off into the woods beyond the city walls to explore the vast forbidden lands and discover what dangers lurk there.
During the process of discovery, Robyn quickly makes the acquaintance of Mebh Óg MacTíre (voiced by Eva Whittaker), a free-spirited young girl living out in the woods with a mysterious tribe. By day, Mebh is a human child, but at night, she transforms into a wolf, which causes Robyn to question her preconceived notions. In the midst of searching for Mebh’s missing mother, Robyn is taken in by the wolf pack, and she must help the town understand what she knows.
Either deliberately or through my Yankee eye, Wolfwalkers certainly evokes the care and patience seen in Disney’s earlier hand-drawn tales. The vibrant and splendidly rendered animation cannot be praised enough. It’s sweeping and eloquent in its approach, filled with vivid and wondrous decadence. It fancies the eye and dazzles the screen, so much so that it’s often easy to look past the formulaic format of the story as you’re simply enraptured by its visual splendors.
Much like The Secret of Kells, Wolfwalkers takes many great and passionate strides to make the visual presentation reminiscent of the sort of picture-book tales that seem so disappointingly out-of-fashion in today’s cinematic landscape. Engulfed in an era of 3D animation (which isn’t always inferior, but can lack the timeless quality), there’s something undeniably refreshing and positively exhilarating about watching a brand new film carefully crafted in this style. It’s both nostalgic and comforting, and the universality of the story makes it feel more longstanding and true, too.
Though I find these movies can be simplistic almost to a fault, there’s an evergreen and ever-present enchantment to them that shouldn’t be ignored. Cartoon Saloon is wonderful at capturing the attentive, accessible appeal of classic animation, namely the spirit and zest of old Disney movies, allowing the spellbinding beauty of their presentation to absorb you into the prevailing and humane necessity of their messages. They’re as delicate and divine as warm cookies eaten on a snowy day at Grandma’s house, and they’re full of sweet sentimentality without letting their sweetness block the vigorous vitality of their core values. It’s a balance that often looks easy, but as we’ve seen from a countless barrage of obnoxious family films over the years, such sophistication mixed with visual bedazzlement is getting hard to find nowadays. It’s always comforting to watch a film that’s as daintily divine as this, and the directors often keep things simple and light.
In the midst of ongoing darkness and clouding bleakness in our real lives, it’s comforting to watch something so cuddly and gentle, even on an active Sunday afternoon. Considering how consistently — sometimes even persistently — dour the movies at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival have regularly seemed, the delicate, dazzling, good-natured charm found in Wolfwalkers‘ appealing and immensely likable presentation certainly isn’t (nor should it be) taken for granted. It’s a warm, charming family film with a big heart and a loving imagination. Whatever qualms I may have with the overly-simplistic narrative at the center of this tale, I can’t help but feel swept up by all the wonders and joys that pop up throughout this well-realized treat of a movie.
Wolfwalkers will arrive on AppleTV+ later this month. While it’s a shame to know that it won’t get much of a theatrical showing, outside of its limited release, its streaming accessibility in these dark times will, nevertheless, be a balm in the cold, wintery days ahead. We need fables from the past and present to push us forward. And this is the type of timeless tale you can easily enjoy time and time again — even if you’ve seen or heard it plenty of times before.
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