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'Princess Mononoke' for the Irish
An apt comparison for anyone who has seen the Studio Ghibli masterwork, Wolfwalkers tells the tale of a young woman who is entranced by the opportunity to join a cult full of wolves and witches. Just kidding, but not really. There are parallels to Studio Ghibli's Princess Mononoke because they are similar in theme, tone, and premise. There is a sort of mysticism and magical realism to them both, and their plots are very much aligned. With regard to the overall message, it is one of peace and harmony with nature, animals, and each other. It is also a tale of friendship, acceptance, tolerance, and trust. And in a similar sort of way, it is really a tale aimed at adults, rather than just children. Animated films have that sort of stigma - that they're only meant for children. Wolfwalkers proves that one can tell an adult story and make it visually dazzling enough to distract kids, as well. Now, let's dive in.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: you simply cannot have a good film without a good script. Wolfwalkers is no exception. The screenplay is incredibly efficient. It works on very nearly every level of storytelling. It starts out a bit slow, and in familiar territory. Apart from the slow start, the film is well-paced otherwise. But once it really gets going, it's a fun and easy ride. It ends far from easy - it's a bumpy road to get there. But, that's screenwriting 101 - you must make it hard on your protagonist. Nothing should ever come easy or unearned. That is definitely the case for Robyn, our protagonist. She is a starry-eyed young woman with dreams of escaping regular household duties, dreams of becoming a skilled markswoman, and to be free to do as she pleases - not in the confines of a home or within castle walls. Her father wants her to be complacent, and to do as she's told. Now, this is a quite familiar story - but once we're in the meat and potatoes of the story, it's far from familiar territory (unless you've seen Princess Mononoke). I want to stress that just because it's similar to Mononoke, doesn't mean it's not different enough to be good on its own, because it is! The film really shines once it gets into the mystical and magical. There is also very strong character work at play, as there are satisfying arcs for all or most of the primary characters. Additionally, the chemistry between Robyn and Mebh (one of the Wolfwalkers, you'll get it once you see it) is another aspect of the story that strengthens the effectiveness of the screenplay and film as a whole. I also do want to point out that towards the end of the film, excellent plants from earlier in the film are paid off in the most satisfying of ways. This is a testament to the effective writing in the screenplay. Bravo to the screenwriter.
The Animation Style
The animation style of the film is the second strongest aspect of the film which, to me, contributes to its overall effectiveness. It is my understanding that the exact animation style has to do with "woodblock aesthetic" and intricate line work to form some kind of 2D animation. It is an unorthodox geometric design which was done to highlight the beauty and brutality of the film (cartoonsaloon). I am unfamiliar with this exact type of animation, and I do not claim to be an expert on animation, but it was almost essential for this type of storytelling. There are moments in the film which almost require this particular animation style for it to be able to communicate the story visually, and effectively. The magical realism and mysticism within the film have a need for the animation to be able to tell its story, and you will see exactly what I am referencing when you watch the film for yourself. I thought the visuals in this were striking and brilliant, and I do hope it's rewarded come awards time. Wolfwalkers has received awards on the critical circuit, but it's my hope that the Oscars, Globes, and/or the Film Independent Spirit Awards (if they even award this type of film) give this one a shout.
The Voice Acting
The voice acting was another strong aspect of the film. I believe this to be an underrated art form as it is not recognized by most awards ceremonies, but it is absolutely essential to all animated films. For animated films to be effective, they must have strong voice acting, otherwise we cannot take the characters nor their emotions (or lack thereof) seriously. The accents are also what make it for me. Of course, with a predominantly Irish story, you're going to have strong, thick accents involved, but I felt this added to the overall authenticity and groundedness to the story. Honor Kneafsey absolutely nails the hopeless naivety and the blind ambition of our protagonist. Sean Bean, as per usual, kills the role of the helicopter father who only wants best for his daughter - her safety and complacency. Eva Whittaker also knocks her role out of the park with the wild, enigmatic adventuress Mebh. The supporting cast all effectively contribute and rock their roles as well. It was well voice-acted from top to bottom and I have no complaints to file.
As stated, the story almost identically mirrors that of 1997's Princess Mononoke, by Studio Ghibli. The protagonist forms a bond with nature, the wilderness, and must protect against those who might threaten it. And of course, there is a fable filled with imperialism, destruction of the environment, animal cruelty, and power and greed. Now, that aside, the story is effective when looking at it from a character standpoint. As I mentioned before in the Screenplay section, the arcs are well placed and executed. Where the story really shines is its ability to reel you in, become enamored with the characters, feel their struggle, their bond, root for them, and capture you in the magical thrill and awe of it all. The film also effectively uses music to couple with its storytelling techniques. The music is used sparingly, but is well placed and works for the moment our characters are having and experiencing together or apart. It leaves you smiling as it truly is one of wonderment, happiness, friendship, and imagination. Beyond that, it is also a dark film riddled with brutality, ugliness, the human condition, and the dark depths of humanity. When all the smoke clears, the dust settles, it is a tale that shows kindness, generosity, family, friendship, and the good side of humanity can prevail over all else. It is funny how many will look at this primarily as a film for kids - when in all actuality, that couldn't be further from the truth. Yes, it's PG - but it's for adults. Let's be real here. That said, probably don't show it to kids. Or, exercise caution if you do.
Overall, Wolfwalkers is a sprawling, awe-inspiring, epic, and visually spectacular animated film. The screenplay is genuinely well-written and constructed, pointing to the film's effectiveness and success as a whole. The animation style is a wonder to me and I cannot praise it enough. The voice acting is on point - there are no slouches in this cast. The story works on very nearly every level and I could not point out a visible flaw if I tried. The only complaint I have is that it drags at certain points, and we tread familiar territory at times which took me out of it momentarily - but that was rare, admittedly. I also felt the film was just a hair (a wolf's hair?) too long. It might have done well being five or ten minutes shorter. Since the film was partially derivative, I do feel I have to point that out, even if I cannot complain about that flaw too much, if at all. Nor can I really say that's a particularly fair criticism, considering most everything these days is derivative in some fashion. All that aside, the film works spectacularly well in every facet of filmmaking this visual medium has to offer. I recommend this film highly to fans of the genre and I expect you will not be disappointed if you can have an appreciation for this artform like I do.
Final Rating: Excellent
Painfully Average/run of the mill
How did this get made
Wolfwalkers is an Apple original animated feature film and is available exclusively on Apple TV+
I highly suggest you seek this one out.