That increasing rarity, the hand-drawn 2D (or 2.5D) animation, inevitably lost out in the Best Animated Feature Oscar stakes last year; only one such has won in the award’s two decades (Spirited Away). As it happens, none of that year’s nominees were standouts, but Wolfwalkers, following in the path of director Tomm Moore’s previous The Secret of the Kells and Song of the Sea, is by far the most stylistically distinct and imaginative.
Co-directed with Ross Stewart and furnished with a screenplay from Will Collins (from a story by the directors), Wolfwalkers again picks up on a thread of Irish folklore (the Werewolves of Ossory). The walkers are human while awake, but their spirits become wolves when asleep; those bitten can also become wolfwalkers, hence young Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), who falls in with feral wolfwalker Mebh (Eva Whittaker). While Mebh’s mother is in a semi-permanent lupine state, looking for a new home for her wolf pack, Robyn’s father Bill (Sean Bean), a hunter (of wolves) is oblivious of such things and in utmost denial.
An unfortunate consequence of this is the picture’s main narrative weakness, one of endlessly recycling Robyn attempting to get her dad to listen and Sean Benn saying “No Robyn, you must stay in, it’s for your own good”. Add to the mix a Lord Protector (Simon McBurney), who comes on like Patrick Wymark in Hammer mode but making such pictures look positively inclusive by comparison – the Lord Protector’s refrain is about the Lord’s will, pagan nonsense, and an implicit desecration of nature as a threat to urban safety; all a little tiresome and unnuanced – and you have a movie in which the potential of the idea and the visuals are consistently restricted by the script.
At times, Wolfwalkers takes flight, as the subjective wolf-eye views echo the BBC adaptation of Masefield’s The Box of Delights (in which the wolves were running). There’s a sense that the Moore and Stewart are playing down to a perceived (young) audience, rather than expecting them to rise to the material’s challenge or respecting their intelligence, and one would be neglectful ignore the blunderbuss emphasis on nurturing, matriarchal nature/paganism vs restrictive, patriarchal Christianity. Ideally, kids warrant a bit more nuance to play with, but at least Wolfwalkers offers them something beyond wall-to-wall CGI.