About a minute into Wolfwalkers, a deer appears. In and of itself, that’s not remarkable—even in a movie in which wolves symbolize the untamed spirit of pre-colonial Ireland, there’s nothing like a majestic stag to embody the mystery and grandeur of nature. What’s striking about this particular deer is the way it’s drawn, and the kind of animated feature it’s preparing us to watch. Unlike the photoreal computer-generated wildlife that populates Disney’s latest remakes, this one is pointedly two-dimensional, almost geometrical. Its face is a half-moon, and where its legs meet its body you can see a cluster of overlapping circles, the kind an artist might sketch in a preliminary drawing. This isn’t just a hand-drawn animated feature—already, like the wolves in its fairy tale, something of an endangered species—it’s a movie that wants you to know it was made by hand.
The major studios have committed wholly to digital techniques, abandoning not just the look but the feel of art made by hand. There are scores of hand-drawn animated movies that lack anything resembling a personality, and a handful of digitally made ones where you can still feel the influence of a guiding intelligence rather than the steady hum of a well-written algorithm. The independent animator Don Hertzfeldt, for one, has managed to switch from drawing by hand to working in digital without sacrificing any of his individuality; his movies look different, but they are still unmistakably his. But while the boundaries of digital animation ought to be limitless, the vast majority of it has trended in the same direction, away from the medium’s cartoon origins and toward adding a veneer of realism to stories that don’t benefit from it. (Personally, I blame whoever decided that Shrek needed pores.) The Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, founded by Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey, and Paul Young, has gone in the opposite direction, making movies that suggest another world lying just under our own, one you can almost see if you hold it up to the light.
Moore, who directed the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, returns to the territory of Irish folklore in Wolfwalkers, but this time, it’s also a form of alternate history. The opening text placing the story in Kilkenny, 1650, puts it right at the end of Oliver Cromwell’s campaign to conquer the Emerald Isle, shortly after Cromwell laid siege to the city and captured it. Robyn Goodfellowe (voiced by Honor Kneafsey), lives within its walls with her father, Bill (Sean Bean), an English soldier in service to the unnamed Lord Protector (Simon McBurney), an obvious Cromwell stand-in. The woods outside are filled with wolves which the Lord Protector has tasked Bill with wiping out, purging the land of its last connection to its pagan past. But the wolves, while wild, aren’t uncontrolled. They can be swayed, at least, by the wolfwalkers, a sort of ancient order of mystics whose spirits roam the world as wolves while their human bodies slumber.
Robyn, who lives alone with her widowed father, wants nothing so much as to follow in his wolf-hunting footsteps, and shares his alienated feelings toward their current, temporary home. (At one point, she humiliates a local bully by using her father’s crossbow to drop a flag bearing St. Patrick’s cross on his head.) She ventures into the woods, hoping to prove her bravery—and in defiance of the Lord Protector, who believes girls are fit only for the scullery—and is nearly devoured by wolves before she’s rescued by Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a wolfwalker with a massive mane of red hair and a nose that, even in human form, seems to bear a faint trace of fur. Mebh, a boisterous free spirit—she was literally raised by wolves—magically heals the bite on Robyn’s arm, but not before it begins the process of turning Robyn into a wolfwalker herself. Soon Robyn is quite literally seeing the world through new eyes, experiencing what it’s like to be hunted instead of a hunter, and even when she’s awake, the awareness of the new spirit within her lingers. It’s like a version of double consciousness in which she is both indigenous and colonizer.
Acknowledging the influence of Japan’s Studio Ghibli (especially Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro and Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), Moore and his animators create a world in which Ireland’s pre-Christian past is never far from the surface. (One Kilkenny resident warns Bill that by going to war with the wolves, he’s undoing a pact St. Patrick made with the pagans.) The forest’s hills are festooned with the curlicues of a forgotten language, a reminder that nature is not simply peaceful and serene but savage and unknowable, something to be respected and deferred to, not comprehended and conquered. There’s a powerful sense of the mystical woven through the film, as there is through much of the best art aimed at children, who don’t need to be reminded that there is much of the world that lies outside of their understanding.
Unfortunately, Ghibli’s influence is matched by Disney’s, which takes the form of a reliance on easily digested story beats and pat character arcs. The tidiness of Will Collins’ script (from a story by Moore, Ross Stewart, and Jericca Cleland) is at odds with the feral looseness of its images. There’s even a montage set to an incongruous pop song by Aurora from Frozen 2, although a Disney executive would probably have vetoed lyrics like “There’s blood on your lies / The scars open wide / There is nowhere for you to hide.” It’s fitting that the forces at war in the story are at war in the movie itself, although I wish that wildness had scored a more decisive victory. But as with many folk tales, the story is just a pretext for the telling of it, gathering around the fire (or, in this case, the Apple TV) to bask in its spell, and Wolfwalkers casts a spell that will linger for a long, long time.