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by Jay Seaver

"Cartoon Saloon's best bit of animated Irish magic yet."
5 stars

The pace of animated film production means that, so long as their work is staggered properly, I can probably get away with calling two or three people the best purveyors of animation out there without it looking too much like I'm being overly enthused about whatever I've seen last. Tomm Moore and the rest of the team at Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenney, Ireland are in that group, and "Wolfwalkers" may be their best movie yet, a kid-friendly adventure that hits familiar notes but never misses.

The film is set in 1650, when Kilkenney was a walled city expanding its farmlands to keep up with its growth, displacing wolves as it cut down forest. The Lord Protector (voice of Simon McBurney) has hired English hunter William Goodfellowe (voice of Sean Bean) to deal with the wolves, and daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) is eager to help. In doing so, she chases her pet falcon Merlin into the woods where she discovers Mebh Óg MacTíre (voice of Eva Whittaker), a "Wolfwalker" her own age who lives in the woods and has access to wild magics, most notably the ability to manifest as a wolf when she sleeps. Mebh's mother has been looking for a place to relocate their pack, but she has been gone a long time, her sleeping body inert.

Those in the audience older than Robyn and Mebh (pronounced like "Maeve") will likely find that much of the story hits familiar beats, but this isn't a mark against it; screenwriter Will Collins (working from a story by directors Moore & Ross Stewart and Jericca Cleland) takes care to earn the story's next steps without crossing a line from challenging to cruelty. It's familiar, but more because the writers are following what kids and adults would do in this sort of situation rather than trying to fit a framework. They're canny about setting it at a point where magic seems possible but naturally imbuing it with material that feels contemporary, from bullying to the long and contentious relationship between Ireland and England to fanaticism to environmental impact, all of it interconnected. The story is simple but the background is rich and relatable to its viewers.

And, of course, it's gorgeous, and the different ways in which it looks fantastic are worth considering. There's the conventional ones, where action-packed animation is smooth and not overwhelming, or how it will occasionally pause for an especially great image. The character designs are shapes that kids can draw themselves but which still manage to be expressive, able to use things like the complementary curves on Robyn and William's heads without it being too cutesy, or switch styles to quickly show the power of a wolf's senses and other magic. On top of that, there are numerous moments in this film where they buck conventional practice in deliberate, striking fashion - where so much of even hand-drawn animation is concerned with realism, these filmmakers will just as often use the medieval Irish art as a guide, and the effect is often amazing, as when a flattened style makes Kilkenney look as massive as any modern city without it becoming anachronistic, or where they go even further and just get rid of conventional perspective because something else works better. It's downright beautiful to look at while still feeling alive, such that the film seldom narrates something other filmmakers might, because the visual tells you enough.

On top of that, its two young heroines are delightful, an odd couple whose pairing has a genuine edge to it in their early encounters though they nevertheless quickly become fast friends. The animators give them contrasting shapes and different body language that translates surprisingly well to that of wolves, and the voiceover work by young actresses Honor Keafsey and Eva Whittaker is really quite excellent, whether it's how the two girls play off each other, how Mebh's bluster occasionally cracks, or Robyn imitating her father. In the middle of all that, the filmmakers are able to give enough attention to how William, the bravest man Robyn can imagine, is scared all the time in a way that seems far more raw than is usual, with Sean Bean absolutely nailing the line where it all comes out, without taking away from how this is the girls' story.

A few heavy-handed pushes near the end aside, this film does everything right, moving at the sort of steady pace a younger viewer can follow without ever seeming hobbled. It's an exciting story that works as a couple hours' adventure and is packed with enough mythology, history, and art to start a curious child down any number of paths and one which encourages young girls to see and do what's right even when well-meaning adults say otherwise. I love it and hope my nieces do as well.

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originally posted: 11/17/20 16:13:30
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  13-Nov-2020 (PG)

  30-Oct-2020 (PG)

  11-Dec-2020 (PG)

Directed by
  Tomm Moore
  Ross Stewart

Written by
  Will Collins

  Honor Kneafsey
  Eva Whittaker
  Sean Bean
  Simon McBurney

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