WolfWalkers redraws the bounds of old Ireland’s hunters and hunted

Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s playful and stirring animation conjures an interregnum Ireland caught between pagan spirits and the boot of English invaders.

23 October 2020

By Andrew Osmond

WolkfWalkers (2020)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ WolfWalkers is screening in UK cinemas, and on Apple TV+ from 11 December 2020.

WolfWalkers follows the Irish director Tomm Moore’s hand-drawn cartoon films The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014). Each has children drawn into natural wonderlands of myth and magic, into adventures about protecting and healing rather than fighting.

WolfWalkers, which Moore co-directed with Ross Stewart, is set in 1650, during Ireland’s occupation by Oliver Cromwell, or a fictional equivalent – the character is called Lord Protector in the film, a title Cromwell only took in 1653. But what happens in WolfWalkers hardly follows history. More important, the Lord Protector is the film’s clear and cruel villain – Moore has previously eschewed such characters.

WolfWalkers (2020)

The heroes of WolfWalkers are two girls. Robyn Goodfellowe, despite her name’s folkloric connotations, is initially an ordinary girl from England. She’s come to Ireland with her father, voiced by Sean Bean, who hunts down wolves in the woods. Soon enough, Robyn encounters the wild girl Mebh, who lives in a magically hidden cavern behind a waterfall with the wolves she commands, frantically seeking her missing mother. Mebh can project her mind into a wolf’s body, leaping and dashing through trees and over rooftops, a power she inadvertently gives Robyn. The girls become fast friends, though Robyn’s devotion to her father places her in painful dilemmas. 

Like the adult animation of Bill Plympton or the teen-skewed anime of Shinkai Makoto, Moore’s visual style is instantly identifiable. His films’ drawings can look naive and artless, but they’re wondrously composed with swirls and circles and glorious colours, flattened spaces and playful perspectives. Mebh’s wolf pack operates as a furry mass; its Hydra heads snarl scarily or grin goofily. Mebh herself is drawn as if half of her is her fiery swirling hair.

WolfWalkers (2020)

The only complaint is that the film doesn’t go far beyond its excellent predecessors. Even when Robyn gains lupine vision, allowing her to see scents and people in gleaming colours, the effect is used sparingly, not opening up the magical wonderland as much as animation could have done.

WolfWalkers is more of an action-adventure than Moore’s other films, especially in its breathless extended climax. Some set pieces feel inspired by Miyazaki Hayao’s Princess Mononoke (1997).

WolfWalkers is hugely successful in engaging us with the enchantingly expressive girls, and with Robyn’s love for her father, but sells some of the adult characters short. Mebh’s mother has a very limited role, and the Lord Protector, voiced by Simon McBurney, is dull in his magic-hating bigotry: it would have been more interesting to see a perverse hypocrite, attracted and obsessed by the pagan Other he persecutes, like the villain of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). Such an angle might have given Mebh’s mother more substance as well, even if she spends much of WolfWalkers as his captive. 

Other things to explore