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Film Review: “Wolfwalkers” Enchants with Unique Magic

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 10th, 2020

Film poster: “Wolfwalkers”

Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore/Ross Stewart, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.

Set in Kilkenny, Ireland, in 1650, the new animated film Wolfwalkers tells the tale of young Robyn Goodfellowe, daughter to an English hunter hired by the local “Lord Protector” (also English) to eradicate the nearby wolf population. They can’t chop down the forest to expand the city’s territory until the predators are gone. Given that Robyn’s father is an expert tracker and killer, this should be an easy enough task. Until, that is, Robyn discovers the power behind the wolves: a human mother-daughter duo who take lupine form when sleeping. They also have the ability to heal wounds, and when Mebh, the wolf-girl, first injures and then repairs Robyn’s arm, her magic flows into the English lass, turning her into a “wolfwalker,” as well. With the Lord Protector ever more insistent, will Robyn be able to save the wolves, and herself, before her own father destroys them all? Such is the gripping conflict in this charming, if sometimes cloying, Irish drama.

The animation is brisk and fresh, a change of visual pace from the Disney and Pixar schools (which are wonderful, but difference is always good). The music is less so, and combined with the grating over-the-top vocal imagining of Mebh contributed to much of this viewer’s distress while watching. The story is original and moving, however, combining strong coming-of-age moments with a powerful conservation message, the whole set inside a unique fairy-tale universe. Though death is always in the offing, the overall narrative remains family friendly, true trauma averted at the last moment (though perhaps not for the villain). With the addition of the English-Irish dynamic, Wolfwalkers also stands as a stark condemnation of feudal and colonial policies past. The real predators lie not in the woods, but across the sea.

Honor Kneafsey as Robyn Goodfellow in WOLFWALKERS ©Apple TV+

Moore (Song of the Sea) and Stewart build a delightfully distinct world, real-world conflicts grounded in an enchanting fantasy. The way the wolf-selves of the wolfwalkers emerge from the human body once asleep is magical, and the first-person point-of-view shots when Robyn initially discovers her new power hold a lyrical fascination. Honor Kneafsey (A Christmas Prince) and Sean Bean (Possessor), as Robyn and her father, deliver excellent voice performances, quiet where some might be, unfortunately, a little too loud. By the end, we wish we were wolfwalkers, as well, just so we could inhabit the same lush forest, happy in our roving dream state, dancing among the trees.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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