Wolfwalkers, the animated movie that arrives on Apple TV+ today, is the best animated film of 2020. A fiery mix of folklore and feminism, it’s one of the most astonishing works of visual art you’re likely to see this year.
It comes from the makers of gorgeous animated features The Secret of Kells and The Breadwinner — and it marks their strongest work to date.
Wolfwalkers shines thanks to a very hand-drawn design for animals and buildings, with textures that feel warm and timeless in their evocations of the elemental.
To that, the movie adds a familiar wide-eyed and adorable view of human beings. Its approach to animating faces, eyes, noses and the movement of human bodies is bound to feel familiar, in a good way. The character design and movement frequently reminded me of the cult TV show The Critic, which was unexpected but of course quite welcome.
Wolfwalkers is relentlessly lovely to behold, each scene more expressive and breathtaking than the last. All of that would matter less if the story and performances couldn’t match the effort shown in the drawing. But the voice cast members are frankly almost too good. At times, their performances render the movie so emotionally affecting it makes you want to look away.
Fair warning: This movie flirts with overwhelming sadness and may not be suitable for every child. But for those who can handle it, I suspect this will become a lifelong favorite.
Huff and puff and blow your house down.
Wolfwalkers is the work of Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, which is batting a thousand vis-à-vis Oscar nominations and acclaim for its features. The studio followed up Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey’s 2009 The Secret of Kells with 2014’s Song of the Sea and 2017’s Angelina Jolie-produced The Breadwinner.
What all these movies have in common — beyond uncommonly beautiful craft — is their interest in women as shape-shifting personifications of the clash between traditional theistic worldviews and a woolier and more freeing pagan ideology.
In The Secret of Kells, a young woman comes to a Christian monk to help him make sense of the natural world outside of the high walls built around his town at the command of a humorless abbott. They live equally in fear of the wilds as they do the Vikings and their un-Christian belief system.
In Song of the Sea, a young boy doesn’t understand why his sister won’t talk until learning she’s inherited a rare, mythic condition from their deceased mother that makes her more attuned to the world of animals and the sea. The Breadwinner centers on a woman who dresses as a boy to fool the hardcore Islamic community in her Kabul neighborhood long enough to earn money to support her family.
That old time religion
Wolfwalkers similarly focuses on the clash between openness and repression represented by religious restrictions. In the Irish town of Kilkenny many centuries ago, the people face the imagined threat of wolves. The people fear and attack them — and the wolves fight back. A hunter named William Goodfellowe (voiced by Sean Bean) is brought in to kill the wolves at the behest of the town’s very religious lord protector (voiced by Simon McBurney).
William’s daughter Robyn (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) is having a hard time fitting in. The local kids don’t trust her because she’s English. The local authorities think she should be doing scullery work instead of running free.
One day, she follows her father into the woods while he’s out hunting and not only meets the fabled wolves but meets Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whittaker). She can speak to the wolves, even control them, and at night when she sleeps, she becomes one.
Mebh’s the wolfwalker of the title, who lives without rules or laws. She’s wild as the animals and freer in spirit than anyone else Robyn’s met in Kilkenny.
But as fun as it is to hang out with her in the wild all day, a few things nag at Robyn. Why can’t Mebh’s mother, left alone in their wolf cave, move or speak? And what’s going to happen when Robyn’s wolf-hunting father discovers that her new friend is a wolf?
A film as thought-provoking as it is entrancing
In Heidi Schreck’s play What the Constitution Means to Me, the writer/star tells a long and winding story about her relationship with a document on which her civilization was founded, only to come to a troubling realization: It was written by men to not protect women.
Tomm Moore and Cartoon Saloon have been extrapolating upon this thesis since their first feature. Men write our laws and our holy books; women simply have to deal with the consequences of their dictates.
If you’ve ever wondered why it seems disproportionately to be women who are fiercely interested in horoscopes, witchcraft and reappropriating paganism and a rabid, earthy, female definition of society, consider that most of these things were historically punishable by male authorities. (Even the Church of Satan has more male deacons than female.)
A historical female perspective
Look at the Salem witch trials. And ponder why the term witch is adopted as a kind of protective doctrine for women who do not feel welcomed or protected by democracy and capitalism. Women were convicted by male witchfinders and hung on hunches. Today, using the ideas of witchcraft is both an ironic refutation of the direction witchhunters wanted civilization to travel and a shorthand for a uniquely female rebellion.
Despite Wolfwalkers being directed by men, it adopts a historical female perspective. It quite persuasively argues in favor of a pagan retreat from the norms of a male-dominated religious society. The film really digs into the hubris and violent overreaction of those men (to the point that Wolfwalkers is often unbearably tense and melancholy). But there is some truth to the notion that you must absolutely go past the point of no return to prove a point. And that point is we should never have built walls when nature welcomed us.
Women saw it. Men didn’t.
Wolfwalkers, like all the Cartoon Saloon movies, asks us to consider what the world would have looked like if we’d done a little more listening and a little less talking.
Wolfwalkers comes to Apple TV+ on December 11
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.