Cartoon Saloon (AKA Irish Studio Ghibli) are really on a bit of a roll. The Kilkenny-based animation studio has had a string of critical hits with The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner. Now their latest feature Wolfwalkers returns them to the familiar ground of Irish folktales, with a not insubstantial amount of real-life history in the mix.
The year is 1650, Oliver Cromwell’s forces have occupied the city of Kilkenny and apparently introduced them to the Elsinore school of architecture, judging from the thick city walls and steel gates. With them is Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey), precocious daughter of an English hunter (the ever-authoritative Sean Bean) tasked with ridding a local wolfpack from the forest so it can be torn down. However, the wolves are led by Mebh, a wolfwalker able to shift between wolf and human, who refuses to leave until her missing mother returns.
The subsequent friendship between Robyn and Mebh is the lynchpin on which Wolfwalkers spins so effectively. Despite how divorced they are from both reality and contemporary culture the two immediately develop a chemistry that is relatable and tender. Their playful antics in the woods, the good-natured sniping, all of it builds a relationship that generates real emotional weight when threatened.
The sense of drama is conveyed through the emotive voice acting and score. A sense of real peril and oppression hangs over much of the film. The audible fear in Bean’s voice as he pleads with her daughter to obey the authorities, the shock at which an arrow strikes a wolf. Only slightly undermined by the bloodless, family-friendly animation when the action reaches a climax. The story and aesthetics work hard to hammer home the danger from Simon McBurney’s Lord Protector. In particular the weight and density of the sounds shown animated by Mebh’s wolf senses.
If you’ve seen any of Saloon’s previous work, you’ll know what to expect from the animation. Lovingly drawn pastel colours, works of still art in motion. The curvature of certain scenes communicating the intimacy and homeliness of Mebh’s environment. Contrasted with the brutalism of Cromwell’s Kilkenny. Most of all though they remain consistent in their tone. These are myths brought to life. Stories to amuse children and adults alike.