Tue. Oct 27th, 2020

TIFF Review: Using myth and metaphor, ‘Wolfwalkers’ astounds with arresting visuals and masterful storytelling

Plot: Blending elements of Irish folklore, this new installment in Cartoon Saloon’s folklore inspired trilogy (Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea) transports viewers into a magical, mythical world in which some humans have the ability to turn into wolves and vice versa: WolfWalkers.

Review: 

Films like WOLFWALKERS will remind you why hand-drawn animation has been, and will always be, much more than a gimmick. Much more costly, time consuming and sophisticated, it has almost vanished from studio fare – but thanks to the animated genius of Cartoon Saloon and a number of other smaller studios out there, this magnificent form of animation is not dead. On the contrary, it remains the most expressive and heartfelt form of animation and WOLFWALKERS is an excellent proof. Just as handwriting remains more emotional and authentic than simply typing with a computer, no matter how outdated that may seem to be, WOLFWAKERS goes beyond just conventional hand-drawn animation techniques to prove a point: it features astounding use of pencil-like shots to serve its mythical story in ways that have not been attempted in a long, long time.

Those who may think that Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s WOLKWALKERS is simply gorgeous to look at, which it is thanks to its stunning animation, would need to look beyond the film’s arresting visuals to grasp its deeper themes. On one level, this is a perfect film for younger viewers who will connect with its wide-eyed characters, enchanting forests and exciting action. But older viewers will find it deeply humane with a wonderful message that blends perfectly with its imagined world of wolf and human characters. 

The film opens in a grey-looking city in Ireland, which has fallen to English settlers. Residents have succumbed to their fates and are now following a new leader: Oliver Cromwell. Just outside the city, wolves live in the woods and are deemed a threat to mankind. An English hunter (Bill, voiced by Sean Bean) and his daughter Robyn (voiced by a fantastic Honor Kneafsey) are sent to kill the wolves and restore safety. Despite her father’s warnings, Robyn can’t help stay back home – she wants to be part of the action and help her father kill as many wolves as they can. She sneaks into the woods and discovers the enchanting world of Wolfwalkers: humans who, when sleeping, turn into wolves. A magical and unforgettable adventure kicks off, but danger is lurking and not far away. As Robyn surprisingly finds herself in Wolfwalkers’ shoes, she learns how compassion is the key to understanding those different from her, and more importantly, how we may have much in common with those who have been stigmatized, marginalized and shunned. 

Brilliantly using the mythical concept of Wolfwalkers as a metaphor for the human body and soul, Moore and Stewart contrast the grey, depressing city surrounded by walls of concrete and fear, against the enchanting, colorful forests full of soul and joy. Emphasizing how fear of the other along with submission and social conformity can truly make humans devoid of souls and how we only come alive when we open doors for our souls to be free of hate and submission, the filmmakers employ some of the most impeccably crafted hand-drawn animation sequences ever made to celebrate Robyn’s transition into a Wolfwalker who have been intentionally executed with rough pencil-like shapes and textures, much like souls that know no physical boundaries. As we see her floating with heightened senses of vision and jumping from rooftops and between trees, we get to truly experience the true potential of the animation medium: to help us dream, imagine and believe the impossible. 

Verdict:  A stunningly animated, brilliantly executed, layered film that will delight both children and adults, WOLFWALKERS possesses both style and substance. A mythical tale on how we truly come alive when our souls are as alive as our bodies, it is a wonderful showcase for Cartoon Saloon’s masterful storytelling techniques and much deserved status as one of the world’s leading storytellers and a potent reminder on why animation is a medium and not a genre.

Grade: A-

This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival. Apple and Cartoon Salon will release Wolfwalkers in the US.

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