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The first thing you’ll notice if you watch Wolfwalkers, a new animated movie coming to streaming on Apple TV+, is that it’s beautiful to look at. The film, which comes from Cartoon Saloon, the same independent Irish studio behind The Secret of Kells and The Breadwinner, is gorgeous, a hand-drawn tale that takes full advantage of what animation, with all its exaggerations, flexibility, and intentional imperfections, can do. The second thing you’ll probably notice is that the story is remarkably, earnestly straightforward.
Wolfwalkers tells the story of Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey), a young English girl who has traveled to Ireland with her father Bill (Sean Bean). They’ve come to Ireland during a time of upheaval, and Bill, a renowned hunter, has been tasked with eliminating one of the last wolfpacks. However, when Robyn follows her father into the forest, she meets Mebh MacTíre (Eva Whittaker), a young girl who leads the pack — and who transforms into a wolf herself when she sleeps. Soon, Robyn finds herself caught between two worlds, attempting to save the wolves and her new friend even as her father faces mounting pressure to exterminate them. And, Robyn just might be a Wolfwalker herself.
“It was based on folklore from around this area, where we grew up in Killkenny,” Tomm Moore, who co-directed Wolfwalkers and helped develop the story, tells SYFY WIRE, though he says he and his fellow director Ross Stewart tweaked both myth and history to their storytelling needs. Still, the fundamentals didn’t need to change much.
“Tom and I have always been interested in storytelling and the old folktales,” adds Stewart. “Even though you’re reading something that takes place hundreds and hundreds if not thousands of years ago, it still has a human relevance.”
Just as hand-drawn animation is increasingly scarce, so too are animated movies that tell a story like this — a fairy tale, essentially — without any winks to the audience, self-aware nods, anachronistic jokes, or flashy celebrity cameos (Bean is Wolfwalkers' biggest name but his vocal performance is not at all showy). By being so timeless, Wolfwalkers feels both charmingly old-school and vibrant at the same time.
“I was joking earlier that it’s a bit like wearing the same pants for so long that they come back into fashion,” quips Moore.
“I do think as independent filmmakers we’re lucky,” Moore continues. “We’re able to be as earnest or as straightforward as we want to be. There isn’t the pressure from investors or producers to make it ‘cool’ or ‘hip’ or whatever. It’s very much just in the tradition of storytelling that we wanted to continue.”
Stewart sites Wolfwalkers’ villain as an example of something that might not have made the cut were a larger studio to have made the film. Although he’s referred only to as “The Lord Protector” in the movie, history buffs will recognize that he’s Oliver Cromwell, a controversial figure in English history and real-life villain in most Irish histories. While Wolfwalkers doesn’t get too into the specifics of Cromwell’s brief overthrow of the monarchy and brutal conquest of Ireland, it uses aspects of true history to enhance — and darken — a fantastical story.
“We wanted to not refer to him as Cromwell in the film because he’s only an aspect of Oliver Cromwell,” Stewart explains. “He’s the Oliver Cromwell who wanted to get rid of wolves as a way to tame and civilize Ireland, and through that ended up cutting down a lot of the natural forest.”
That thematic dichotomy — the contrast between the lush beauty of the woods and The Lord Protector’s strict rule — is a major theme of the film, one that comes through not just in the plot, but visually.
“The whole story is built up from the beginning with animation in mind, how do we want to tell the story. We’re not translating it from a live-action vision to animation, so how we design the worlds is part of the symbolism,” Moore says. When Robyn is in the town, the animators play with perspective in a way that makes the movie look like a tapestry or woodblock print. Everything is ordered, and the look of the movie is locked into the straight lines and firm borders that would make The Lord Protector pleased. Meanwhile, the woods are lush, with vibrant colors that at times seem to bleed off the edge of the screen. Everything is literally sketchier in the forest — a wild, free-spirited place.
The way design affects the impact of the movie applies to the characters, too. As the movie progresses, Robyn is drawn in a less and less angular way, as if to symbolize that she’s breaking free from the rigidness of the town as she becomes more lupine. Even from scene to scene, Wolfwalkers is always using its animation style to enhance what’s happening, rather than simply depicting it as a cleaner, computer-generated style might.
“We try to make the characters look angry with the linework as well as with the way they move and act and the things they say. If they’re angry they’ve got angry lines, if they’re happy they’ve got happy lines,” Moore says. “We try to celebrate the fact that they’re hand-drawn and that hand-drawn characters can show emotions that you can’t see in any other way.”
Wolfwalkers premieres in theaters on Nov. 13 via GKIDS and then will stream on Apple TV+ beginning on Dec. 11.