Review: Wolfwalkers

Wolfwalkers (2020)

A few readers have pointed out to me recently that I tend to like things. And although I halfheartedly defend myself against such accusations by pointing out that I’m inclined to simply ignore films and TV series I dislike rather than excoriate them, there’s simply no denying that if I’m going to dedicate any amount of my precious time to a nugget of video entertainment, I’m far more likely to focus my attention and energies on the things I appreciate about it than the things that don’t resonate with me. Every so often, though, a film like Wolfwalkers comes along and forces me to look at everything else with a more critical 

eye. So if my expectations seem to be calibrated a little higher than normal for the next little while, don’t blame it on a lack of caffeine or a generally cantankerous mood—blame it instead on this near-perfect work of art and the impact it had on me.

 

Wolfwalkers, in case you’re unfamiliar with it, is the latest effort from Irish filmmakers Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, the third in a series of films based loosely on Irish folklore. Narratively, it bears only the most tangential connection to the previous two films in the cycle—2009’s The Secret of Kells and 2014’s Song of the Sea—but there’s enough shared DNA between the three, both thematically and stylistically, to make their common heritage undeniable.

 

The most obvious thing that sets Wolfwalkers apart is its maturity, not only in the story itself but also in the way it’s told. And by that I don’t necessarily mean that it’s a “grownup” animated film, à la Pixar’s Soul. This is

WOLFWALKERS AT A GLANCE

Tucked away on Apple TV+, this decidedly un-Disney but still family-friendly take on Irish legend is a visual feast.

 

PICTURE     

An incredible home cinema experience from beginning to end, with the rich color palette and nuanced tonal scale beautifully presented.

 

SOUND     

The highly kinetic Dolby Atmos mix works wonderfully with the visuals to enhance the film’s hypnotic effect, but does get a bit too busy from time to time.

undeniably a family film, made for the young as well as the young at heart. Unlike Kells and Sea, though—which, as wonderful as they are, occasionally resort to the sort of pandering for which Disney is known—Wolfwalkers is perhaps the most un-Disney family-friendly animated film I’ve seen since The Red Turtle.

 

As such, even when the film flirts with predictability—which it only occasionally does—there’s still a sense that you’re not quite sure where it’s headed. It’s one of the few movies I’ve seen in recent years I could truly give myself over to fully and experience from moment to moment. I have to admit, though, I’m not sure if that’s wholly due to the story itself or if it’s the animation that encourages such ever-present mindfulness.

 

Whatever the case, Wolfwalkers is a sight to behold, with literally every frame looking like a fully realized painting intended for framing and public exhibition. That’s rare for animation—especially 2D, hand-drawn animation. As a big fan of cartoons, especially Looney Tunes, my brain is almost programmed to appreciate background and character animation as two completely distinct disciplines. Think of the work legendary background artist Maurice Noble did at his peak on shorts like “Robin Hood Daffy” and later Road Runner shorts. Those backgrounds are rife with funky abstractions and purely stylistic elements, and only really work together with the character animation when everything is in motion.

 

Funky abstractions and purely stylistic elements abound in Wolfwalkers, but by contrast it’s really difficult to separate background from foreground. There’s never that sense that the characters are being drawn atop a static stage. Every single image in the film creates the illusion that everything from the main characters to the background crowds to the architecture and set dressing sprang from the same pen as one composition. And the effect is simply hypnotizing.

 

There’s also the fact that Wolfwalkers relies on two very different styles of animation—one a blocky, inky, linocut aesthetic heavily influenced by Romanesque wall paintings; the other a very sketchy and organic mix of chaotic pencil sketching and watercolors. Those disparate looks are used most obviously to draw a very clear distinction between the town of Kilkenny and its people on the one hand, and the inhabitants of the surrounding woods on the other. The contrasting style are used somewhat less obviously, though, to convey the moods and inclinations of the characters—especially those whose motivations change throughout the film and whose allegiances shift more toward the natural world.

Wolfwalkers (2020)

If it weren’t obvious from the preceding paragraph, there’s an overt emphasis on environmentalist themes in Wolfwalkers, drawn both from the folklore that inspired the film as well as the filmmakers’ proclivities. There’s also a strong anti-authoritarian bent to the story, a sense of genuine rebelliousness and individualism rarely seen in American animated films. I’d be lying if I said both themes weren’t way up my own personal alley. But I don’t settle down to watch a cartoon with the intention of being proselytized to, even when (especially when) I’m already a full-fledged member of the choir. So perhaps my favorite thing about Wolfwalkers is that it balances these themes without ever feeling preachy.

 

Really, my only hesitation when it comes to Wolfwalkers is the vehicle by which it’s being delivered, at least here in the U.S. The film is an Apple TV+ exclusive, which certainly limits its audience. Worse than that, though, it means it’s presented with no supplemental material—no making-of documentaries, no director’s commentary, nothing of the like. And more so than any film I’ve seen recently, this one positively begs for supplemental material. I want to see the behind-the-scenes process of the animators at work. I want to hear from the writers and directors about their inspiration, their motivation, and more importantly the justifications for so many of the unorthodox choices they made. I’m starving for more information, and aside from a few random clips on YouTube, there’s little to be found.

 

One thing I absolutely cannot complain about, though, is the quality of the presentation. Viewed via the Apple TV+ app on my Roku Ultra in Dolby Vision with Dolby Atmos audio, Wolfwalkers is an incredible home cinema experience from beginning to end. Any imperfections to be seen in the video are all consequences of the hand-drawn animation and not a result of streaming. And though it may be true that the contrasting blocky and sketchy animation styles don’t really lend themselves to the sort of fine detail that pixel-counters look for, the rich color palette shines through beautifully here, as does the nuanced tonal scale.

 

The Dolby Atmos mix does get a bit too busy from time to time, but that’s probably just me. And even I have to admit that the highly kinetic mix works wonderfully in conjunction with the visuals to enhance the film’s hypnotic effect.

 

More than anything else, I’m just sad that so few people will have easy access to this beautifully made but poorly marketed gem. If you’re among the 90 percent of Apple customers who haven’t bothered to sign up for a free year of Apple TV+, Wolfwalkers is absolutely reason enough to do so. It’s just a shame that even those potential numbers wouldn’t be enough to give Wolfwalkers the audience it deserves.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

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