Writer: Will Collins
Directors: Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart
Cromwell’s Ireland was a dangerous place, filled with occupying soldiers, military rule and brutal massacres to subdue the population – not an obvious setting for a family-friendly cartoon. But Will Collins’ Wolfwalkers. directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, is a charming tale of childhood frolic, adventure, and the essential role of the landscape in Irish identity.
Robyn and her father have moved from Yorkshire to Kilkenny tasked by Oliver Cromwell with clearing the forest outside the town and ridding the area of wolves. Forced to work in the local scullery, the intrepid Robyn wants to hunt with her father and when she encounters the mythical Wolfwalkers in the forest no one believes her. Can she save the Wolfwalkers and her father from Cromwell’s ire?
Moore and Stewart’s 100-minute film has a lovely watercolour picture book quality eschewing the over-produced digital visuals of modern animation to reference the flattened but infinitely more engaging style of mid-century cartoons. Like Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Robin Hood the art and animation teams led by Sandra Norup Andersen employ the stylings of the early modern period, envisaging costume and architecture, layering what seem to be two-dimensional images to add depth and warmth.
The forest scenes are particularly beautiful, an autumnal landscape filled with browns, oranges and greens as Robyn and her Wolfwalker counterpart Mebh tussle and tumble in lush landscapes filled with trees, leaves, vines and vegetation in rich hues. The final military confrontation is also gloriously depicted in blood reds, purples and shadowy grey-blues as the woodland is filled with fire. Variation is added in the dry puritan tones of Kilkenny while the ways in which Moore, Stewart and Norpu Andersen envisage scent as luminous animal outlines changes the pace.
The is cast led by Honor Kneafsey as Robyn, an admirable heroine who carries the picture well, and develops an enjoyable chemistry with Eva Whittaker’s Mebh. For the grown-ups there is a raft of talent behind the other characters including Maria Doyle Kennedy, Tommy Tiernan, and Sean Bean as Robyn’s affectionate but misguided father Bill who on several occasions looks like he may not make it, a dilemma Bean fans will be used to. And while the wolves may be scary at first, the real villain is Britain’s most famous regicide, a big bad Oliver Cromwell voiced by Simon McBurney.
Wolfwalkers is a little long for younger children and the political nuances will pass them by, but Collins, Moore and Stewart have created a stunning vision of seventeenth-century Ireland. Like many of the greatest animated features, Wolfwalkers is about the adult world failing to understand the magic and freedom of childhood but, in using a traditional style of animation, it brings a little of it back to us.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October