Ireland shares a dark and complicated history with England, so Wolfwalkers, an Irish animated fantasy film of nigh celestial beauty, must be dark and complicated in turn. The Emerald Isle’s verdant forests are home to tall tales beyond imagination, safeguarding their inhabitants from the shackles of civilization. They’re also stained by blood shed in both war and foreign occupation. Wolfwalkers is filmmaker and animator Tomm Moore’s latest project out of Cartoon Saloon, the animation studio he co-founded in 1999 with Paul Young, and the capper to his loosely bound Irish folklore trilogy (begun with 2009’s The Secret of Kells and continued with 2014’s Song of the Sea).
At first blush, the film appears burdened with too much in mind—chiefly thoughts on everything from English colonialism to earnest portraiture of Irish myths, the keystones of Moore’s storytelling for the last decade. Linking these poles are a story of friendship across borders and social boundaries, a dirge for a world pressed beneath the heels of men, a family drama between a willful girl and her loving but overprotective father, and a promise of what life could be if strangers reached across those borders and boundaries to find, if not love, then at least common ground.
How Moore and his collaborators Ross Stewart and Will Collins created such a robust screenwriting economy that each of these threads not only fit into Wolfwalkers’ 103 minutes, but feel entirely essential to its vibrance, is likely a whole narrative unto itself. Their collective achievement speaks for itself, of course: Wolfwalkers is a stunning effort, the best of Moore’s career and the best Cartoon Saloon has produced to date. Considering that their output is unimpeachably good, this is no small achievement. Moore, Collins, and Stewart set Wolfwalkers in 1650 Kilkenny, not incidentally the same city where Cartoon Saloon is based. This is Ireland in the time of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney), an absolute monster whose campaigns against the Irish led to the wholesale slaughter of thousands of men, women, and children. In the film, he’s portrayed as callous, tyrannical, immune to the suffering of others. It’s his ambition to rid the woods surrounding Kilkenny of wolves—to “tame this land,” as he so often proclaims.
There’s a two-pronged snag to his campaign. The first prong is Robin (Honor Kneafsey), a clever and headstrong English girl recently relocated to Kilkenny with her father Bill (Sean Bean), a hunter tasked by the Lord Protector with tracking, catching, and killing wolves. The second is the rascally Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whittaker) and Moll MacTire (Maria Doyle Kennedy), a fire-haired daughter and mother who dwell among the wolves. Mebh and Moll are wolfwalkers, fae beings who go as humans by day and as wolves by night while they sleep. After a chafed introduction, Robin and Mebh become fast friends, a touchy matter made knottier when Robin absorbs a bit of Mebh’s sorcery and becomes a wolfwalker herself. Worse, Moll has been stuck in slumber for longer than Mebh can recall, with no sign of her return as the Lord Protector bears down on their woodland home.
Over 11 years and three features, Moore has established an immediately identifiable visual language defined by vivid bursts of colors and a pair of conflicting aesthetics: Woodblock printing for the urban; free-form expressions for literally everything else. Life within Kilkenny’s walls is rigid, grainy, set in concrete in ways that life outside those walls simply isn’t. The woods teem with adventure, vitality, and yes, wolves, but the wolves only pose danger to folks bearing axes and torches. Wolfwalkers ties each into the other, creating a fully-realized world where culture clash reflects in the competition between the film’s styles. Ultimately, there’s harmony in Moore’s craftsmanship where none exists in Kilkenny: The world of men is a lonely, inhospitable place void of warmth, and the untamed world of Mebh and Moll is inviting, lush, a place where bonds are forged under unlikely circumstances.
Wolfwalkers stays in conversation with both worlds, and with history both real and imagined. Oliver Cromwell existed. Wolfwalkers didn’t, but it’s easy to imagine parents reading bedtime stories about wolfwalkers to their children. Fairy tales may be fairy tales, but they’re as much a part of history as subjugations and war crimes told of in history books. This appears to be one of Moore’s missions as an author: Telling the story of Ireland by telling Irish stories. In Wolfwalkers’ case, Moore pulls a classic movie villain out of England’s conquest of Irish lands and its oppression of Irish people.
The film’s coda embraces unity, of course, where Irishness and Englishness coexist. And as much as Moore’s focus is on Ireland’s history, his work also communicates with like-minded movies: Brave, Princess Mononoke, Ferngully, Avatar, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy—stories about environmental destruction, mankind’s dominion over Earth, and the swift, jarring learning experience of becoming the “other” you so wildly and unreasonably fear. But Wolfwalkers is so rooted in Moore’s personal interests, and his interests so baked into his psyche, that the film is of a piece with its contemporaries instead of a misshapen blob made up of their influence. Every detail here, every flourish, has a purpose, whether splashes of red on flower petals, soft edges around dusk-lit trees, or three-panel split screen sequences that read like the pages of illuminated manuscripts brought to life.
The effect is magic, and that magic is profound and breathtaking. Uncovering wonder in a place shaped by imperialist horror is a real feat, unless you know where to look and what to look for. Moore knows. He’s been looking for it, and finding it, for over a decade.
Directors: Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart
Writers: Tomm Moore, Will Collins, Ross Stewart
Starring: Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Tommy Tiernan
Release Date: December 11, 2020 (Apple TV+)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.