The plot of Wolfwalkers will be relatively familiar to fans of what are arguably the two most popular animation studios, both of which have made movies about a supposed mythical/alien threat and the determined young person trying to convince town elders that no threat exists. Indeed, directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s movie is primarily about the relationship between Bill (voice of Sean Bean), the head wolf-hunter of a small village being terrorized by the beasts, and Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), his overly protected daughter.

The overarching story follows Robyn’s attempt to convince her father and the tyrannical Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) that the wolves are harmless. Robyn comes to realize this after stumbling into the habitat, deep within the neighboring forest, where the wolves reside and discovering that the mythic “wolfwalkers” (who can somehow tame the canines) are very real. She meets Mebh (Eva Whittaker) – pronounced like “Maeve” – a half-human, half-wolf girl about her age who longs for the day her mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy) awakens from her slumber. The rules of wolfwalking are simple: When one’s human form is asleep, one’s wolfish form is awake, and vice versa. Since Moll ran off to find a solution to the ongoing conflict and never returned, her human form is in suspended animation. Robyn promises to help Mebh get her back.

With one major exception, then, this story plays out exactly as we might anticipate: The adults pay no mind to Robyn’s protests; Bill pleads with her to follow the rules of the Lord Protector, the latter plots to burn down the forest if necessary, and the townspeople at large are simply too paralyzed by misguided fear to listen to reason. The exception is quite a twist, redefining everything we thought we knew about the trajectory of this story: Through an act of intervention on Mebh’s part, Robyn becomes a wolfwalker herself, which places her in the same sympathetic position as those being hunted by the Lord Protector and, even more troublingly, her own father.

This is where the emotional content of the film comes into play. Robyn’s mother died years ago – the implication, though never explicit, being that she died in a wolf attack – and now Bill feels helpless to protect his daughter. He might be stubborn-minded, such as in a conversation wherein he doesn’t promise to be angry when she asks him to remain calm, but he’s doing the best he can. As for the friendship between Robyn and Mebh, it helps tremendously that the vocal performances from Kneafsey and Whittaker are as compassionate and warm (the score by Bruno Coulais, lush and magical, is at its best when the film focuses on the pair) as the characters they inhabit.

The movie is far less about the story, though, and more about the medium that has been employed to bring Moore, Stewart and screenwriter Will Collins’s vision to life. This is an animated effort from Irish outfit Cartoon Saloon, which over the three previous features and several more shorts has attempted to keep the traditional hand-drawn style alive. This is a splendid exhibition of that style, which enlivens the characters as beings of harsh outlines and sharp angles. Wide shots of the village, meanwhile, are two-dimensional, with characters moving along the frame horizontally. At the moments when magic enters the frame, all issues of logic are thrown right out the window for the team of animators.

Wolfwalkers is an overwhelming visual delight in ways that far outweigh any residual familiarity with the narrative. It might be easy to underrate a movie that knows what its audience will respond to on that level, and Collins does an admirable job of keeping the events character-focused, even as the finale must inevitably tie up the literal and thematic loose ends of the plot. The real story, though, is the animation, which simply keeps the viewer well within the movie’s grasp.

Summary
A splendid exhibition of hand-drawn animation.
75 %
Visual Treat
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