|Synopsis||Set in medieval times, a young wannabe huntress tries to help her father save the townsfolk by clearing the nearby woods of wolves, though her perspective changes when she encounters the mythical wolfwalker.|
|Length||1 hour, 43 minutes|
|Release Date||November 13, 2020|
|Distribution||GKIDS (theatrical), Apple TV+ (internet)|
|Directing||Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart|
|Writing||Will Collins (screenplay), Jericca Cleland (story and script consultant), Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart (story)|
|Starring||Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney|
Cartoon Saloon is an Irish-based animation studio that is certainly no stranger to critical acclaim. Their last three films (The Breadwinner, Song of the Sea, The Secret of Kells) have all earned Oscar nominations, with their latest, Wolfwalkers, also likely to follow suit. They have a tendency to produce narratives that focus on the importance of maintaining cultural traditions and portray unconventional ways of life, and that’s even reflected in their 2D hand drawn animation style, which feels rebellious in the face of the current trend towards CGI. Innovative in its adherence to old fashion, will Wolfwalkers appeal to modern audiences?
Violence/Scary Images: There are some scenes where wolves snap and lunge at people; their large teeth and growls might scare the youngest of viewers. A hunter sets animal traps, though they are always sprung. Set in medieval times, arrows and guns are shot, cannons are fired, and swords are swung. Two animals are shot, seemingly fatally, by arrows. Two people are superficially bitten by wolves. One character is attacked by a wolf and is flung off a large drop to his death (you see the descent but not the impact). One character is seen in the stocks while others are threatened to join them. Characters are mistaken as animals and are almost shot, sliced, or otherwise killed.
Language/Crude Humor: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” is used as an exclamation. Minor insults like “idiot” or other derogatory terms within the context of the story (“townie”) are used.
Drug/Alcohol References: None.
Sexual Content: None.
Spiritual Content: The film’s main villain is a devout Christian who occasionally prays to the Lord for his protection to no avil, making the story take on a pro-Pagan vibe. The movie centers on “wolfwalkers”; like a werewolf except controlled, these are people that are human by day, but spiritually project and turn into a wolf when they sleep. They possess magic that allows them to heal themselves and others, and also to control a pack of wolves.
Other Negative Content: The main villain is seen as authoritarian and intolerant despite actually having good intentions, which muddies and negatively portrays Christianity. Like most films aimed at children, the movie emphasizes the fun of being carefree and wild whilst demonizing and undermining the importance of hard work.
Positive Content: The film strongly highlights that the path to reconciliation is through communication; to not instantly judge or persecute those who seem different, but rather to first understand their perspective in order to find a viable solution without resorting to bloodshed. It displays the horror of deforestation and the expansion of colonization, and supports the conservation of the environment.
There’s a lot to love about Wolfwalkers. Set during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, we’re instantly transported back to a time when townships were protected by moats and large stone walls from the wild, untamed beasties that roamed around darkened woods. It might be medieval in its setting, though the film’s central conflict is a familiar one; more farmland is needed and eventually that has to encompass the nearby forests. The encroachment of man means the wild animals (wolves in this case) have no choice but to either prey on livestock or become displaced in a world that cannot offer safe habor. Yet the constant interaction with these large predators threatens the lives of civilians, to the extent that children are banned from leaving the safety of the village walls.
The 2D animation style is gorgeous in its simplicity, where it occasionally plays with a lack of perspective, cheekily paying homage to the tapestries of the era. The lines aren’t neat but rugged and jagged, where the audience is acutely aware these are sketches brought to life. There’s a messiness to it that perfectly harmonizes with the wilderness settings and brings energy to the slobbering large jaws of the ferocious wolves. In contrast the township is tidier with its lines, where strong verticals and horizontals imprint the rigidity of civilization, though there’s still a scratchiness to the thatched rooftops. Yet the most impressive artwork is left for the film’s “wolf mode”, where the surroundings are reduced to grey scale and the eyes are tricked into following the delightful scents of the world; it’s minimalistic in concept but also wonderfully detailed and evocative, reminiscent of the animation used to depict the Black Rabbit in 1978’s Watership Down. It’s a fantastic bit of world building that quickly conveys some of the plot’s trickier aspects.
It’s an animation style that has fallen out of favor over the past few decades with many studios opting to use CGI instead. Thankfully Cartoon Saloon has continued to buck the trend because 3D models wouldn’t evoke the same essence of Wolfwalkers’ time period. Older viewers raised on 2D animation still have a profound sense of nostalgia when it comes to this genre of cinema, which works to the story’s advantage, as just how audiences are left wistfully admiring the old fashioned artistic elements, the narrative also beckons viewers to regale traditional myths and legends, celebrating simpler times.
More than others in the animal kingdom, the wolf is loaded with cultural significance and mythology. They’ve commonly played the villain in fairy tales, where if they’re not tricking girls wearing red hoods then they’re blowing down the houses of little piggies. They symbolize all that is wild and untame, with the legend of the werewolf arising not only from lycanthropy but also from the idea that some humans cannot control their beastly desires. In other parts of the world they are celebrated for their instinctive wisdom and connectedness to nature, and are frequently portrayed as spirit guides. As the wild ancestors of man’s best friend, where it’s still a mystery as to how our two species have become intertwined, it’s safe to say that humanity continues to be fascinated with all that wolves represent, with our various folkloric tales reflecting that cultural interest.
In recent times we’ve come to realize that their negative portrayal in culture has brought them close to extinction. Conservationists are quick to defend their necessity in the ecosystem, where reintroduction attempts have been met with great success. Having personally worked with wolves and been one of the privileged few to have spotted a pack in the wild, they are mostly misunderstood animals that are incredibly skittish and shy…although you’d still not want to bump into a pack whilst walking alone through the wilderness. As a result from the efforts of conservationists, we’re now seeing an influx of wolf-positive literature and narratives, Wolfwalkers included.
This film currently has a very high rating amongst both critics and general audiences on Rotten Tomatoes, and a large part of the reason is that it taps into our fascination with wolves. I love wolves. Wolves are cool. A good portion of this film’s runtime is spent hanging out with a pack of wolves, which is awesome. One of the best scenes involves running through woods, experiencing the scents, sights and sounds as a wolf, all set to the song, “Running With the Wolves” by Aurora, and whilst it’s kinda cliché, it’s an amazing sequence that speaks to the wild child in all of us. I was sold on Wolfwalkers right from the trailer. If you like wolves, then you’ll love this movie by default.
While this film has made it to my top ten list for 2020 (I’m just a sucker for 2D animation and wolves, really), that doesn’t mean it’s free from flaws. As much as I adore the folklore surrounding this animal and the film’s treatment of their plight, it doesn’t do the same justice to the other side. The movie shares many similarities with Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, although the complex relationships between the different factions are more thoroughly explored in that film than what is unearthed in Wolfwalkers.
The wolves are depicted as misunderstood creatures, although in reality the most unfairly treated character is the villain, Lord Protector. Flipping the script, from his perspective the events that unfold are nothing short of a horror film. Agriculture is a necessity for an ever-growing civilization, so he orders the woods to be cleared to make way for more farmland. Suddenly he hears reports of wolf attacks, so he enlists the help of the main protagonist’s father to hunt them down. The Lord Protector does many things throughout the course of the film that are only ever really done in the interests of his people. When he sees Robyn, a little girl, outside the city’s walls, he’s actually lenient, not the totalitarian ruler the movie wishes him to be. He is an authoritative and intolerant man, quick to crush dissent and punish others for their incompetence, but then again, why should a boss continue to employ an underachieving worker? He might have a hooked nose and a hulking evil frame, but if we lived in his shoes, would we really be different?
Wolfwalkers does contain a lot of nuance, and more symbolism can be found for those willing to strip back its surface layers. It does delve a little bit into the socio-political atmosphere of the time, showing the conflict between the invading English and the local Irish. The oppression of the wolves and the wolfwalkers by the “townies” could be representative of the gradual loss of Celtic folkloric culture under the rise of Christianity and puritan lifestyles. Yet the film only hints at this; there’s no thorough exploration and it’s an interpretation that can only be garnered through studying the history of the time period.
It leads to my biggest gripe about the film: the Lord Protector, the film’s villain, is a Christian. Now, there’s a lot that can be unpacked about the witch-hunts of the era, where in today’s time the very word “witch-hunt” is synonymous with unfair persecution. It’s a horrible blight on Christianity’s reputation that shouldn’t be shielded from criticism, and the horrors of the time deserve to be remembered. Wolfwalkers toys with the idea of a Christianity vs. Paganism allegory but doesn’t commit to it in any way. Since it doesn’t thematically explore anything at a deeper level, the Lord Protector’s religious views feel slapped on for no reason other than to throw Christianity under the bus. It feels like the equivalent of making Darth Vader Jewish or Voldemort Hindu—it adds nothing of value to the story and only reinforces harmful stereotypes. The Lord Protector’s religious views could have been left out completely and nothing would’ve changed with the story.
It suffers from what I call “the danger of the single narrative”. It’s okay for a Christian to be portrayed as a villain. Yet when just about every movie does it and there are very few narratives presenting an opposite viewpoint, that’s when it becomes a harmful trope. It reinforces the message that Christians are evil and oppressive, and this has real world implications. There are many Christians in overseas nations that suffer from horrendous religious persecution, yet their plight isn’t treated with the seriousness it deserves no thanks to Western media propagating the contrary. As a film critic, I’m really over seeing the whole “Christianity bad” trope. If you’re a filmmaker reading this, either justify your reason to vilify a Christian for thematic reasons, or pick another religion to use as a punching bag, because it’s really getting old and it’s unfair to the millions of Christians who don’t have access to their human right of the freedom of belief.
There’s another ugly trope that also rears its head in Wolfwalkers. There is a point where the protagonist, Robyn, is forced into scullery work when all she really wants to do is to hang out with her new wolfwalker friend and her pack of wolves. Her father reminds her that it’s honourable work (it is—let’s quit with the career shaming here), although these household chores are depicted as the epitome of an oppressive system. Now, I might be a little harsh; of course you’d pick running with some wolves over washing dishes or mopping floors, but once again we’ve got the danger of the single narrative. It’s not as though there are children’s films out there that relish the completion of household chores. Once again a harmful idea is further established, where hard work and necessary but uncomfortable duties can be shirked in place of carefree fun and games. It’s hardly a message that’s going to reinforce a strong work ethic in children. Granted, Robyn’s reason to ditch scullery work is also because she sees a more practical way to solve the problems in her world, so it is not as irresponsibly depicted compared to what is seen in other films.
I am being nit-picky here. Wolfwalkers offers a more mature and well-balanced narrative than most in the family genre. It’s unfair to single out this film for these flaws when many movies have committed the same crimes before it, although this movie features these tropes nonetheless and contributes to their harmful messaging no matter how well they’re handled and blended into the narrative.
Despite these flaws, Wolfwalkers manages to spin a good yarn. Wonderfully paced, it offers a well-rounded story that details the motivations of several of its characters. It’s manages to stay fresh, making intriguing turns that will frequently benefit one individual to the detriment of another, which places Robyn in a tight spot several times throughout the plot in terms of where her loyalty should lay. Annoyingly it’s one of these stories that could be easily resolved through a series of conversations, though this all helps to highlight the movie’s message about the importance of communication and the helpfulness of seeing things through another’s perspective. The voice over work is phenomenal, and despite Honor Kneafsey’s young age, she manages to capture all the wonder, awe, and heartbreak that is present in Robyn’s journey.
Wolfwalkers is a wondrous adventure that will tap into everyone’s wild child and love of nature. However, it’s not a flawless film and not all aspects of the story are worthy of the amount of praise it’s receiving on Rotten Tomatoes. Christians in particular will feel unfairly stung by this production, where we’ll be lumped once again with the task of explaining to our children as to why the evil man shares our religious beliefs. Nevertheless, it’s a fun, beautifully animated journey that tells an entertaining tale, and is still one of the best films of the year.
+ A solid tale told well.
+ Voice acting.
+ Beautiful animation.
+ Wolves are just awesome.
+ There’s some deeper symbolism to unpack.
+ Well paced.
- It throws Christianity under the bus.
- It unintentionally undermines the importance of hard work.
- The villain isn’t that evil.
The Bottom Line
Wolfwalkers is a visual wonder that will speak deeply to our longing, carefree nature. It’s a mature and layered story, though it’s still not deep enough to justify its negative depiction of Christianity.