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SYFY WIRE Toronto International Film Festival

Wolfwalkers and the freedom of young female friendships

By Kayleigh Donaldson

As animation remains one of the dominant forms of entertainment for children, the question of representation holds particular importance in this medium. A 2020 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation noted that "the time that U.S. children spend with entertainment media has increased to an average of 7.5 hours daily for youth 8–18 years old," so the issues of who and what they see on-screen matter immensely. Animation is often a world where very young kids are first introduced to ideas of gender and society's gender-expectations.

According to a study by Sara C. Hare of Indiana University Southeast, in the top 150 North American top-grossing full-length animated films from 1980 through 2016, a staggering 84.7% of them had male protagonists. Female protagonists, by comparison, only made up a paltry 13.3%. This is something of a surprise since North American animation is widely seen as the domain of the Disney princess, yet they are still greatly outnumbered by men. And those female-centric tales that made Uncle Walt an absolute fortune are still usually centered on stridently traditional ideas of femininity and romance, something that took many years for them to subvert. Even in 2020, with so much more entertainment available at our fingertips, stories about young women that prize friendship over romance still feel like hidden gems in animation.

That brings us to Wolfwalkers, the latest film from the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, which premiered this year at the Toronto International Film Festival. Co-directed by Tomm Moore, the man behind the Oscar-nominated delights The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, Wolfwalkers is the final part in his loosely connected trilogy of retellings of Irish folklore. The eponymous creatures are humans whose spirits leave their bodies when they sleep and become wolves, roaming free through the forests surrounding Kilkenny. For Robyn Goodfellow and her father Bill, the wolves are prey, the mindless wild animals that have been brought over from England to kill as part of the nation's ongoing colonizing of Ireland. Robyn is eager to be just like her father, but an encounter with the wolves and Mebh, the young Wolfwalker who saves her life, leads her to question her loyalties.

Wolves are a key part of Irish mythology. They once roamed freely throughout Ireland but have been extinct for at least 200 years, many centuries after they were wiped out in both England and Scotland. Lots of heroes in these tales were set off to kill wolf-like creatures as part of their quest. One such myth centered on the three lupine daughters of Airitech, who were slaughtered by Caílte mac Rónáin after he tricked them into turning into their human forms, then stabbed them all at once with the same spear. The Morrígan, a fiery Celtic goddess, took on the form of a wolf to battle the great Cú Chulainn, one of the major icons of Irish lore. Wolves symbolized the ultimate force of nature or magic, and a true sign of one's heroism when they were killed. After Oliver Cromwell's conquest of Ireland in the 1600s, a significant amount of anti-wolf legislation was introduced as a means to protect farm animals. Bounties offered hunters £6 for a female wolf. Over the ensuing century, wolves became rare, then endangered, then entirely absent from Ireland.

It is this battle between the new settlers of Ireland and the wolves that form the main plot of Wolfwalkers. The English colonizers have thoroughly made their stamp on the land they have invaded and seek to tear down the vast forest surrounding Kilkenny. This is a dark and, to this day, contentious period of Irish history, one that the viewer would assume is ill-suited to an animated fairy tale. Yet this storybook approach has teeth. The villain of the story is none other than Oliver Cromwell himself, styled to look as grim and foreboding as possible. Voiced with chilling stoicism by Simon McBurney, he evokes images of Vincent Price's character from Witchfinder General. Their roles are similar, too, as Cromwell's order of lupine genocide is a witch hunt in all but name (an echo of Ireland's own history of witch trials, which was sizably smaller than that of the UK and Europe but no less fervent). He may not know that the wolfwalkers exist and are women, but the brutish force of his obsession retains that edge of patriarchal nastiness that all too many of us are used to, even all these centuries later. Wolfwalkers is unapologetically political.

Robyn is a sprightly rebel fighting a whole range of forces. She's a skilled hunter whose dream of working alongside her father is hindered by his protective parenting and the smothering piousness of the Cromwell regime, which sees her as useful for nothing beyond the domestic duties of a scullery maid. That is the only option available to her, be it through employment or marriage, and it's something she's aware of even as a young girl. The monotony of maid duties is shown in drab colors and repetitious backgrounds, almost like an Escher drawing. It's a sharp contrast from the vibrant forest that's teeming with life around every corner. When she enters the forest with Mebh, Robyn is able to have the kind of physical and emotional freedom that is denied to her by her own world, and it doesn't take her long to decide which life she prefers.

In the forest, she also has Mebh, the wild-haired wolfwalker who has never had to worry about saying the wrong thing or being unruly in front of the wrong people. She's a leader of her fellow wolves, one whose power and duties are never in doubt or questioned because of her gender. The friendship she forms with Robyn is one that feels oddly unique in modern animation: Here are two young women whose deep connection is mercifully untainted by jealousy, boy troubles, snide comments, body shaming, and all the things we've come to expect from pop culture depictions of female friendship. Indeed, the queer reading of this dynamic is also evident (and one that the film seems aware of), and is a sign of how freedom from the smothering confines of forced patriarchy offers not only joy but true liberation. As they buck gender conventions — Robyn prefers wearing trousers over dresses and hunting over housework, while Mebh is feral and runs around on all fours with leaves stuck in her hair — they become fiercely loyal and loving to one another. Whether or not the viewer chooses to read into the LGBTQ+ undertones of this relationship, it's a strong and welcome portrayal of young women finding solace and happiness with one another amid terrible circumstances, and we can all relate to that.

Wolfwalkers is a rare beast in animation: a deeply political story that encourages kids to challenge authority, shake off the stranglehold of piousness and patriarchy, and find their joy in the beauty of nature and love. It feels invigorating, necessary even. The world may do all that it can to crush the spirits of girls and women everywhere, but the unruly will still prevail.