The Animated Feature Oscar category is always a fun one to watch and review because it offers such a variety of artistic styles and stories all in the sweep of five movies. Wolfwalkers is the last of this year’s films in this category and I have to say it was surprisingly good. In stark contrast to the near-perfect realism of Pixar’s computer animated films (like Soul and Onward), Wolfwalkers is rendered in the old-style “cartoon” method of hand-drawn animation. The just-slightly-jerky movements and the thick lines delineating objects remind the viewer that machines didn’t generate this film, artists working carefully on their craft turned out every single frame.
In Wolfwalkers, though we have hand-drawn animation in one of its finest expressions. The details are rich, but not overly realistic – you understand, and appreciate, that these structures, and this forest are not real but detailed realism isn’t required to tell the story. Perhaps, though, the most interesting visual element in Wolfwalkers is the richness of the color palette. Although employing almost entirely earth tones of greens, blues, reds, and browns, the lushness of the forest is conveyed not so much in the detailing of leaves and branches, but rather the intense saturation of color. In many ways it reminded me of some of the early romantic paintings from artists like Rousseau.
There is also a coherent story in this movie. Based on Irish folklore, and set in 1650, the story is about an English girl who moves, with her father, to Ireland. He has been hired by the “Lord Protector” to rid the town’s surrounding forests of wolves because the English want them to expand their farms. The girl, Robyn, against everyone’s wishes, enters the forest on her own and encounters a magical girl counterpart, Mebh, who has a peculiar relationship with these wolves. The story is the developing relationship between Robin and Mebh, Robin’s father and Mebh’s mother, and, of course, the towns people and the wolves (and ultimately, civilization and nature). As in the best animated films, the story operates on several levels so it can be appreciated by both children and their parents – the entire family will enjoy this film.
Wolfwalkers is the third film in the Irish folklore trilogy from Cartoon Saloon, the animation studio that brought us The Secret of Kells and The Song of the Sea, both previously nominated in this category. Headed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, the studio is focused on hand-crafted animation and the telling of stories that reflect Irish heritage. They also employ Irish style music, which is a terrific addition. If you like music from artists like Enya, like I do, then you will love the soundtrack for this film. Oscar nominated Bruno Coulais composed much of the music including the Wolfwalkers Theme. The Celtic-style music is carried throughout the film.
This film scored amazingly well with both audiences and critics. The IMDB audience rating put Wolfwalkers at number 5 out of all 41 of this year’s Oscar nominated films, just slightly below Soul, two documentaries and, of course, The Father. And the critics were just about as positive, placing this movie at number 7. Clearly the film has stirred audiences and critics alike.
And yet, Wolfwalkers may not be for everyone’s tastes. I mentioned that the story-line is multi-layered and, well, if all you want to get out of the movie is the fairy tale, then go for it. But there are so many other layers here that certain audiences might well be alienated. For one, there is a definite, and negative, statement about the English colonization, and subsequent repression, of the Irish in Northern Ireland. And so the English Robyn and Bill Goodfellowe aren’t received all that well in the new Irish town and Bill’s skills as a hunter are severely tested.
But there is more. The “Lord Protector” is, more than once, referred to as “the Lord” (including by himself), and so his cruel domination of his people is clearly a reference to the strong rule, and oppression, by the Catholic Church in Ireland and its complicity in keeping power over the people. But beyond that is how the destruction of the wolves, and the forest, is ordered in the name of “the Lord” – a clear reference to how religious thought in today’s world seems to absolve any responsibility to the environment. The film is, finally, a statement about how we are failing in our responsibilities to protect the natural world and how we seem to be justifying it on religious principles. And so, if you are either religiously or environmentally right-wing, then you will probably be made uncomfortable by this film. (My wife Joan, was made uncomfortable by this movie, not because she is right wing, but because of how close it was to home, especially with vigilante groups in Colorado killing wolves, despite environmental efforts to reinvigorate the population.)
But, I’m not one of those who might be offended by this film. In fact, I really liked this movie. I would like to rate it up there with Soul and give it 4.5 Stars, but I can’t. The filmmakers failed to maintain momentum in the second twenty minutes of the film – they probably could have chopped much of that out without significant loss to the movie. So, because of that, it doesn’t deserve the highest rating. It is, nonetheless, an excellent film that most people should see. (4 stars)
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