AFI FEST 2020 FILM REVIEW: Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, 2020)

Posted  and reviewed by Larry Gleeson

Wolfwalkers, an Apple Original Film from Cartoon Saloon, the Kilkenny, Ireland, animation studio that previously produced The Secret of Kells (2009)  and Song of the Sea (2014) completes an Irish folklore animated trilogy spanning slightly more than ten years and is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful films I have had the pleasure of viewing and experiencing. Utilizing two-dimensional hand-drawn techniques with a plethora of pastel colorations, eye-catching geometrical patterns combined with Celtic music featuring harps, violins and a sundry of woodwind instruments, artists Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart take their previous efforts to another level visually, and, in my opinion, produce their strongest work to date. Wolfwalkers made its US Premiere during this year’s American Film Institute’s AFI FEST presented by Audi and was the recipient of the festival’s Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature.

Wolfwalkers is set in 17th-century Ireland, a time of great change with successive transfers of land from catholic to protestant ownership and where administrative and political power passed into the hands of a new English minority (Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 15, No. 60, Sep 1967, pgs. 366-375).  Literary references to the Arthurian Camelot myth and to historical figure Oliver Cromwell are smoothly incorporated as well. Moore and Stewart encapsulate this situation in a magical friendship that develops between two young girls, Robyn and Mebh. Robyn is a “townie” who along with her wolf-hunter father, Bill, is sent from England and tasked with ridding the woodland outside of the town of wolves.  Mebh, on the other hand, is a wild girl who is being raised by wolves. “After being told to stay within the city walls, Robyn sneaks out to explore the magical world of the forest where she meets Mebh, and undergoes a secret transformation, turning into the very thing her father is sent to destroy creating a final battle between the wolf pack and townsfolk.” – Sarah Harris, AFI Festivals Director of Programming,

Artistically, Moore and Stewart felt the use of hand-drawn frames is not limited by aspect ratios of a camera allowing for an expression beyond realism in constructing the worlds of Wolfwalkers. For example, the visual contrast between the town and forest is represented by the aggressive lines and darker colors of the town versus softer lines and earthier, impressionistic tones of the forest. In the Q & A conversation with AFI Festivals Director of Programming, Sarah Harris, Moore and Stewart explained their choice in representation as an attempt to portray Robyn’s life in town as controlled and Mebh’s life in the forest as free, energetic, and out of control. Both agreed the stylistic attempts in drawings and the incorporation of split screens and vertical panels were somewhat experimental and the inspiration came from the 2018 Best Animated Feature Film Oscar-winning work, Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse , the 2005 Frank Miller and Quinten Tarantino Sin City, and from the early Expressionist films whereby frames were hand-painted to create coloration.

Wolfwalkers, steeped in historical significance, is a film the whole family can watch and is set to be released theatrically on October 30, 2020, by WildCard in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and on November 13, 2020, by GKIDS before debuting on Apple TV+ on December 11, 2020. Highly recommended!

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