Movie Review: Magical Irish “Wolfwalkers” is the best animated film of 2020

The filmmakers who brought us “The Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea” bring another Irish myth to vibrant, animated life in “Wolfwalkers,” an environmental fable about spirits who protect the forests from the Ruin of Man.

The vivid, saturated color palette and thick Irish brogues may be the same. But the setting and the politics are new — Ireland under the thumb of the Puritan “Lord Protector” of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, a Cromwellian oppressor of the 1650s.

The heart, action and sophistication of the artwork make this folk tale the best animated film of the year.

An English hunter (voiced by Sean Bean) and his daughter (Honor Kneafsey) have come to Kilkenny so that he can rid the nearby forest of wolves so that it can be cleared and the land worked for profit.

Young Robyn longs to help her Dad, and even has her own falcon and crossbow for the job. But he won’t hear of it. He sets his traps and snares alone.

The Irish kids pick on her for her “fancy dancy accent,” and won’t join her in song — “Wolf wolf, kill the wolf, til all the wolves are done for.”

The locals know that their woods should be preserved, lest the wolves come to town for dinner.

But when Robyn slips away to the woods to spite Dad, she has an accident. And a wolf cub is her salvation. That’s how she meets the shape-shifting girl-by-day/wolf-by-night Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whittaker). Mebh is a spitfire, a sassy Irish dynamo of ferocious energy and voluminous flaming red hair, just like her Ma (Maria Doyle Kennedy of “The Commitments”). And she’s curious about the “smelly townie.”

“Give us a LOOK atcha!”

The child, bless her wee heart, explains the way of things to the townie, in spite of her smell. “I’m no girrrrrrrrrrl! I’m a WOLFwalker!” A mere mention that “the woods are gettin’ smaller by the day” and she sends Robyn home, where the townie tries to convert Dad with her tale.

But the Lord Protector (veteran character actor Simon McBurney) has his plans, and figures he can keep the peace and make Ireland great again if he can just finish clearing the woods, if Bill the hunter just finishes clearing them of wolves.

The animation is simpler, more stylized and far more striking than the Pixar/Dreamworks/Netflix state-of-the-art. And it comes alive in this story of scary wolves, fearful townsfolk, ferocious soldiers and what happens when they’re all hurled into conflict.

There’s an early Disney simplicity to this violent, primal tale, which has a whiff of “Bambi” about it. The Irish magic that co-directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart specialize in is illustrated sparingly and beautifully by their team. All of their traditionally-animated movies have the most striking design and stunning chiaroscuro painting style — rich tones, dark shadows, swirling images.

I love just about everything about their work, especially the Irishness of it all. In a year when Pixar and Netflix seemed set to CGI their way into an awards monopoly, Cartoon Saloon and Apple TV’s “Wolfwalkers” seems sure to crash the party, and with any luck they’ll win the Oscar they should have for “The Secret of Kells.”

MPA Rating: PG, violent action

Cast: The voices of Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Maria Doyle Kennedy and Simon McBurney

Credits: Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, script by Will Collins. A GKids/Cartoon Saloon film on Apple TV+ (Dec. 11)

Running time: 1:43

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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