Wolves often get a raw deal, demonized by the very cultures that historically encroached upon their habitats throughout the Northern Hemisphere. In directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s enchanting hand-drawn animated adventure “Wolfwalkers,” the beasts get a redemptive tale, one in which the mighty predators become the prey.
The film follows the Irish folklore paths of Moore’s previous Oscar-nominated features, “Secret of the Kells” and “Song of the Sea,” echoing his keen interest in ancient fables, supernaturalism and shapeshifting duality. Intoxicating in both its story and craft, “Wolfwalkers” is almost assured of repeating the success of those films.
It may be 1650, but while urbanized Europe experiences the Renaissance, Kilkenny, Ireland, remains in the Middle Ages, rooted in authoritarianism and its chief conduit, fear. It’s a fortressed town surrounded by woods that most of its residents see only through black iron gates.
Newly arrived from England are master hunter Bill Goodfellowe (voiced by Sean Bean) and his impish 11-year-old daughter, Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), who despite societal restrictions intends to follow in her father’s crossbow-wielding footsteps.
Goodfellowe is ordered by the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney), a towering Oliver Cromwell-inspired figure who rules with impunity, to rid Kilkenny of the wolves that inhabit the wilderness beyond its walls. The yellow-eyed creatures threaten farmers and inhibit the townspeople’s ability to clear the forest and expand Kilkenny.
Children are forbidden from venturing outside the gates, but Robyn, expected to remain at home to cook and clean for her widowed father, is no ordinary tween. She is soon disobediently out in the natural world with her companion bird of prey, Merlyn, and encounters the menacing wolf pack that rules it, only to discover their magical secrets through a feral child named Mebh Og MacTire (Eva Whittaker).
The pair could not be more different: the lithe, blue-eyed Robyn, all English angularity, and Mebh, a sturdy, round ginger fireball glaring out through emerald green eyes. Slightly younger, Mebh proves formidable — her brashness emboldened by the fact that she and her mother, Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy), are the last of the Wolfwalkers, lupine humans who by night leave their sleeping human forms behind to run free through the forest as wolves.
The mother-daughter duo are leaders of the pack, who do not run so much as flow, part of the visual splendor Moore and Stewart unleash in their storytelling. The wolves’ home is awash in color — greens, oranges and golds — almost unencumbered by lines in the fluid backdrops, in contrast to the town, drawn with thick lines and grays, demarcating the oppressiveness of the puritanical world. Literal cages reinforce the notion that Kilkenny is one giant enclosure, designed as much to pen people in as keep out the “other” — be it human or beast.
Crossing the domains brings Robyn into direct conflict with everything she thinks she knows and places her, Mebh and the wolves squarely in the gunsight of the Lord Protector’s ire.
Written by Will Collins, “Wolfwalkers” has a modern tone and point of view in its portrayal of the transformation of the girls’ relationship from frenemies to a sisterhood of the wolf built on acceptance, fortitude and sacrifice. These themes are carried by the infectious music, composed by Bruno Coulais in collaboration with the Irish group Kila.
Much of this may sound dark — and it is — but aside from younger tots, “Wolfwalkers” is a true family film. It has the kind of sophisticated ideas that can lead to discussion and debate long after viewing.