Polygon is reporting from the remote edition of the annual Toronto International Film Festival, bringing you first looks at the upcoming movies headed to theaters, streaming services, and awards season. This review came from a TIFF screening.
For animation fans, the works of studios like Aardman, Studio Ghibli, and Laika are instantly recognizable. Their respective styles are inimitable. With Wolfwalkers, the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon solidifies its place among those studios’ ranks. The new feature combines the distinctive, kinetic visual style of the studio’s previous films, The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, with a thrilling story about two young girls becoming friends and learning how to coexist.
Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart and set during the 17th century in Kilkenny, Ireland (where Cartoon Saloon is headquartered), the film focuses on Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) and Mebh (Eva Whittaker), who hail from seemingly irreconcilable cultures. Robyn, who lives in the town, aspires to become a great hunter like her father Bill (Sean Bean), and spends her days practicing her crossbow skills, accompanied by her falcon Merlin. Mebh and her mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy), on the other hand, are Wolfwalkers. They live in the forest and possess magical abilities that let them transform into wolves when they sleep, as well as heal most wounds and call upon the wolves of the forest to obey their commands.
When Robyn and Mebh first cross paths in the forest, they instantly connect. They’re both fiercely independent, and their mutual relish for life means they’re soon bounding through the leaves together and sharing the frustrations they’re otherwise forced to keep pent up. Robyn feels stifled by her father, who has become overprotective in the wake of her mother’s death. Mebh, meanwhile, is growing worried for her mother, whose wolf form has gone missing, leaving her human body trapped in sleep. Could the town’s oily Lord Protector (Simon McBurney), who seeks to completely destroy the forest, have anything to do with it?
The story, given the emphasis on preserving nature, may feel Ghibli-esque, but Cartoon Saloon bucks any other point of comparison with its gorgeous, unique art style. Unlike many of its contemporaries, which have focused on polishing and smoothing out their CGI visuals, Cartoon Saloon is exploring other options. Parts of the sketches that form the characters’ bodies are almost always visible — the circle forming the base of a character’s head, for instance — and Moore and Stewart often break up the screen the way a comic book might, capturing the unfolding action from different vantage points.
The character designs are also remarkable, focusing on basic shapes and flow of movement above all else. Mebh’s face, for example, is an orb. Her huge shock of red hair moves around it like the white around an egg yolk. Her wolfish senses, meanwhile, manifest in whorls and streaks of moving color. The Lord Protector, by contrast, is all squares and sharp angles.
There’s always something to look at on the screen — and always a compelling vocal performance to listen to, too. Kneafsey and Whittaker breathe life into the flowing lines of their characters, capturing both the effusive joy and the pettiness that are part of being so young. Bean, best known at this point for playing stoic, tragic heroes, is a perfect match for Bill, and McBurney’s impassive performance is even clearer evidence that the Lord Protector doesn’t have his subjects’ best interests in mind.
The script, written by Will Collins, is also a bit of a history lesson, as the Lord Protector is none other than Oliver Cromwell. It’s clear from the jump that his title is ironic; he punishes the citizens of the town at the slightest provocation, and refers to anyone who doesn’t adhere to Catholicism as a heathen. But the lines between good and bad aren’t drawn by nationality or religious belief — Robyn and her father are English, too.
Every aspect of Wolfwalkers is thoughtfully, beautifully rendered, and the story is full of twists that keep things unpredictable until the finale. It’s one of the most impressive films of the year, and the best animated film of 2020 thus far. The film also cements Cartoon Saloon’s place amongst the great contemporary animation studios. The studio’s previous films were wondrous. (The Secret of Kells was nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. It’s no small feat that Wolfwalkers is the studio’s best work yet.
Moore has announced that Wolfwalkers will be released in theaters and on Apple TV Plus later this year, but no date has been set yet.