Robyn Goodfellowe is an outdoorsy young girl, who is often seen in the company of wolves. Yes, she wears a cloak with a hood, but it is black, like Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell’s heart, rather than red. At first, the lupine creatures frighten her, but she soon learns she has a mysterious kinship with them in Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart’s Wolfwalkers, which premieres tomorrow on Apple TV.
Goodfellowe’s brawny British father Bill has been dispatched to Kilkenny to hunt down the wolves running rampant in the woods outside the walled city. Unfortunately, it is going very badly. The wolves seem to have human-like intelligence to find and disarm his traps, because in some cases they do. Mebh Og MacTire and her long-missing mother Moll, the matriarchal leader of the wolfpack, are “Wolf Walkers,” who stride about as humans when they are awake, but assume lupine form when their traditional, upright bodies are asleep.
Despite her father’s stern warnings to avoid the woods (and the wolves therein), Goodfellowe quickly befriends Mebh. In fact, her encounters with the wolves brings out her inner Wolf Walker, a revelation she keeps secret from her father. He is under mounting pressure to exterminate the wolves, whom the Puritan Cromwell (not to be confused with Thomas Cromwell, of Wolf Hall, his great-great-grand-uncle) equates with Pagan licentiousness.
Moore & Stewart’s animation is absolutely gorgeous, taking inspiration from Medieval woodcuts and illuminated manuscripts. They also distinctively blend in simple but evocative line animation to convey Goodfellowe’s POV, while she is wolf-walking. The Goodfellowes’ father-daughter story is also quite sweet—at times even touching, even though her bafflingly reckless decisions can cause acute face-palming. Regardless, Sean Bean’s vocal performance as the gruff hunter is easily one of the best viewers will hear in an animated film this year.
Wolfwalkers also happens to be distractingly preachy and problematically didactic. Moore, Stewart, and screenwriter Will Collins portray the Lord Protector as not merely an occupier, but a fanatic akin to Daesh terrorists declaring a caliphate. From an Irish nationalist perspective, there is simply no cause to celebrate Cromwell, but his greatest issue with the Irish people was not their Celtic-Pagan past or their unchecked wildlife—it was their Catholicism. Yet, the “C” word is never uttered in Wolfwalkers.
A little less of the Lord Protector would have made for a much stronger film. Visually, this is probably Moore’s most striking film, but Song of the Sea is considerably more engrossing and altogether more satisfying. Moore and Stewart (who collaborated on Moore’s previous films in art-related roles) are obviously significant animators (we can just hear their fingers wagging a little too much through Wolfwalkers). Frankly, it is appropriate that the film will be available on a major streamer, because there are scenes viewers will want to freeze, in order to soak in, like a great painting. Recommended for the accomplished animation and vocal performances, Wolfwalkers starts streaming tomorrow (12/11), on Apple TV.