Howl, howl, howl! Wolfwalkers (2020)

This will come as no surprise to those who have seen The Secret of Kells (2009), Song of the Sea (2014) and The Breadwinner (2017) by the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon: their latest, Wolfwalkers, is gorgeous to look at. More than that, their films all have very specific visual styles derived from what they’re about, even if they’re recognisably Cartoon Saloon. I like it when animation creates an aesthetic that is emphatically not realistic, for instance the way that Pixar’s Soul did in its metaphysical spaces – and Cartoon Saloon has been great at using and combining visual styles taking inspiration from sources such as illuminated medieval manuscripts and Afghan miniature painting. In Wolfwalkers, the designers and animators evoke two different worlds by means of very different aesthetics: 17th century Kilkenny has the flattened, right-angled quasi-perspective of woodcut prints of the time, creating vistas and compositions that use depth to striking, even unsettling effect not too dissimilar from deep focus, yet always grounded in the historical style it imitates. In contrast, the woods not far from the town are depicted in a more free-flowing, rounded style, giving these places a distinctly different feel, at once more naturalistic than the stylised streets of Kilkenny and more mystical. Visually and narratively, nature in Wolfwalkers is imbued with a life and spirituality that reveals Wolfwalkers – and Cartoon Saloon’s films in general – to be kindred to the worlds of Studio Ghibli, in particular the films of Hayao Miyazaki.

Sadly, what Wolfwalkers does not have is the narrative nuance of Ghibli’s best. Don’t get me wrong: Cartoon Saloon’s latest is gorgeous to look at, it is heartfelt, and it is well worth watching. But the film evokes another animated tale of the clash between nature and civilisation, featuring another feral girl that runs with the wolves, and that’s where Wolfwalkers – directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, who had already collaborated on The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea – feels like the decidedly more simplistic tale. To be fair, the comparison with Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke isn’t entirely fair: Wolfwalkers is aimed at a much younger audience than Miyazaki’s film, and many of its narrative choices reflect this. There is nothing wrong with Wolfwalkers being more of a children’s take, not least since Mononoke is often remarkably violent, even to the point of gruesomeness. But the film has a simplicity of characters and motivations that seems at cross-purposes with other elements of the story.

There is a more complex version of the story hovering around the edges of Wolfwalkers. The film’s setting is one in which systems of oppression and authoritarianism are nestled within each other. The Irish are suffering under the English, an occupying force in 17th century Ireland. The main character Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), the daughter of an English hunter, is bullied by the Irish locals because she is a foreigner, but also because she’s a girl. Even her father Bill (Sean Bean), a good man at heart even if he works for the film’s villain, tries to force societal views of what roles girls and women can have in this society onto his daughter. And wild nature is being pushed back by suffocating civilisation. Everywhere in Wolfwalkers, there is one view of what the world should be trying to defeat another, sometimes driven by love or a sense of duty, sometimes by fear and bigotry.

It is a setup where characters can love one another and still clash, where someone may be in the wrong without being a bad person. Yet while Wolfwalkers sets up this complex world and hints at similarly complex relationships, the story it ends up telling has little interest in shades of grey. In a setting where ambiguity would make great sense, the film seems to willfully ignore it: the inhabitants of Kilkenny may be suffering under the English yoke in one scene and be depicted as cruel and oppressive themselves in the next, yet Wolfwalkers doesn’t seem to be interested in how things hang together. It simply makes characters into villains on a scene-by-scene basis, pretty much ignoring what comes before and what comes after, because it has no interest in shades of grey or even context. In the world of Wolfwalkers, the villains are evil because they are evil.

There are the trappings of historical context – the Lord Protector, the film’s main antagonist, while never named, is clearly meant to be Oliver Cromwell, coloniser and tyrant. He is a cruel authoritarian, a religious zealot and a misogynist, but his motivations and indeed his personality remain sketchy. He does what he does the way he does because the story requires a bad guy. Wolfwalkers assumes the moral simplicity of so many Disney films, but without even giving its villains style or personality – and as a result it feels at the same time didactic yet vague in what exactly it is trying to teach. Don’t be like the Lord Protector – but what exactly this means is sketchy. Compare this with Princess Mononoke and Lady Eboshi, the closest Princess Mononoke comes to a main villain – and yet, she is nuanced in her personality and her motivations. Which doesn’t mean that Miyazaki goes for mealy-mouthed both-sidesism: Mononoke does not muddy the morality of the tale. Lady Eboshi is on the wrong side of Mononoke‘s central conflict, yet she is given reasons for her actions that go beyond “She’s the bad ‘un.” (Ian Danskin of Innuendo Studio did a great video essay titled “Lady Eboshi is Wrong”, where he succinctly argues this point.)

Even if there are parallels in terms of the themes, motifs and even stories of the two films, Wolfwalkers and Princess Mononoke, obviously Cartoon Saloon isn’t required to make the same narrative choices that Studio Ghibli made. But the simplicity of Wolfwalkers‘ morality pervades the whole story, and for me it made the film less engaging: the Lord Protector is an evil bully and thus has to die. The townspeople are fearful bigots and that’s all we need to know, even when they may have credible grievances. Nature is good, beautiful and the only place to be free, and civilisation is bad, stifling, smelly and ugly.

This might have bothered me less if Wolfwalkers was more clearly defined as a fairy tale. There are expectations that come with genre, and in fairy tales good and evil can be as clear as that. But the film is set in a concrete, real historical place and time, even if it is made fantastic for the purpose of the story – and against that background, the black and white morality is indicative of the ways Wolfwalkers makes its story and characters as neat and tidy as possible, including the clichéd coupling off of two single parents. While the setting would allow for something more interesting without making the film less appealing to a family audience, Wolfwalkers leaves no room for ambivalence, melancholy or fear. Lip service is paid to the wolves being scary and dangerous, but there are no teeth to back this up. Danger barely seems real, and the completeness with which its ending must be happy rings somewhat false. The film did not need to be Princess Mononoke, but the insistence with which it turns its real-world setting into a Disney-like fairytale by the end makes me wish that one wolf girl had learnt a thing or two from another wolf girl. Ironically, while Wolfwalkers comes down clearly on the side of nature against civilisation, its ending strikes me as oddly domesticated – and that is disappointing when you consider that it is about a feral girl who runs with the wolves.

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