Much like the Portland-based stop-motion outfit Laika, the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has been building a strong resume over the past decade, even if their work has underwhelmed when it comes to box office numbers.
Though all three of their films to this point have been nominated for Oscars in the Best Animated Feature category, they have yet to take home the trophy. But this year may present them with their best opportunity yet.
Their latest feature, the gorgeous and magical Wolfwalkers, follows a similar narrative path to hits like How to Train Your Dragon and Pixar’s Brave but distinguishes itself with dazzling 2D animation. It has the kind of crossover appeal that could finally put Cartoon Saloon on the map for American audiences.
Set in 17th century Ireland, the story concerns the tenacious hunter Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) and his teenage daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) as they seek to disband wolf packs that threaten their walled-in village. While venturing outside the city’s fortress one day, Robyn and her pet hawk Merlyn meet Mebh (Eva Whittaker), who belongs to a clan of “wolfwalkers,” magical half-humans who have the ability to take the form of wolves as they sleep overnight.
We learn that Mebh is searching for her mother, who transformed into her animal form but hasn’t been able to reunite with her human body. As the barbarous “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney) seems to be Mebh’s mothers’s most likely captor, Robyn and Bill seek to set her free while changing the town’s attitude towards the forbearing creatures that lie outside their borders.
Incorporating aspects of both Celtic folklore and modern Japanese animation, Wolfwalkers celebrates the talented hands that crafted it within every beautifully composed and detail-laden frame. While more recent animated films have tended to strive for precision and photorealism, Cartoon Saloon’s output recalls watercolor paintings that are intended to evoke emotion over exactness.
Co-directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart set most of their story in an autumnal forest landscape where no two leaves seem to have the same exact color. The film’s jaw-dropping art design is a perfect fit for the magical and mystical qualities of the alluring tale at its center but also leaves room for some witty visual humor, as when a group of sheep plop out of an enclosure in one predefined cube.
Another manner in which Wolfwalkers separates itself from the pack of family-oriented animated films is in its breathtaking use and balance of light and shadow in each exquisite shot. As characters are exposed to more sunlight when it pokes through the tree cover of the woods, their translucent colors begin to softly fade and subtly remind one that this otherworldly landscape has long existed in darkness. The light scatters differently in this mystical forest, casting contours that don’t behave in the way that we expect and give us a new lens with which to gaze upon this captivating and surprising world. The technological improvements in computer-generated animation over the past 25 years have allowed the artform to improve by leaps and bounds, but the goal of the artistry behind this film isn’t merely to impress but to inspire.
As in Laika’s most recent films Kubo and the Two Strings and Missing Link, Wolfwalkers is beyond impressive when it comes to its artistic prowess. But it comes up a bit short when it comes to narrative invention. Kids likely won’t mind and may even feel more at home with a more conventional story, but it will be impossible for parents not to be able to recognize tropes from other family-friendly adventures.
While Pixar has all the money in the world to throw at top-tier animation and some have accused them of thematic repetition, their ability to craft story beats of unparalleled poignancy is something that independent animation studios still have yet to emulate.
Nevertheless, Wolfwalkers is Cartoon Saloon’s strongest effort yet and will hopefully enrapture enough audiences at home with its enchanting and vibrant palette.
Also new to streaming this weekend
Streaming on Netflix is The Prom, a Broadway-adapted musical comedy starring Meryl Streep and James Corden about a troupe of theater stars who converge onto a small Indiana town in support of a high school girl who wants to take her girlfriend to the prom.
Available on HBO Max is Let Them All Talk, a Steven Soderbergh-directed dramedy starring Meryl Streep and Lucas Hedges about an author who goes on a trip with her friends and nephew to find fun and come to terms with her past.
Debuting on Disney+ is Safety, a sports biopic starring Jay Reeves and Corinne Foxx about a Clemson University freshman football player who secretly raised his younger brother on campus.