The Call of the Wild: Moore Crafts Exceptional Animated Odyssey in Third Outing
Another example of how rich cultural subtexts can be reformatted for profound contemporary conversations is Wolfwalkers, the third animated feature from Tomm Moore, this time co-directing with Ross Stewart, who served as Art Director on his breakout debut, 2009’s Academy Award nominated The Secret of Kells (co-directed by Nora Twomey, on hand as a voice actor this time around).
Friendship and loyalty become the twin pillars combatting violence and xenophobia in this vibrantly astute rendering of a young girl who wishes to be an apprentice for her wolf hunter father only to cultivate an allyship with a member of a titular tribe of peoples who live as humans when awake and turn into wolves who roam the countryside while asleep. With a poignancy which transcends the usual limitations of animation designed as family entertainment, it’s a visually arresting animated narrative feature which effortlessly blends the Medieval parameters of its setting and transports the material from mere fairy tale glow into an impressive timelessness.
Traveling with her father Bill (voiced by Sean Bean) from the UK to Ireland, young Robyn Goodfellowe (voice of Honor Kneafsey) tries to nominate herself as his apprentice as a vaunted hunter. Declaring the position as much too dangerous for her, she’s relegated to housework while his mission is to eradicate a nest of wolves believed to be in the area. Following him one day, she stumbles into a wolf cave where she meets and befriends the sprightly Mebh Og MacTire (voice of Eva Whittaker), a young girl of similar age who reveals, like her own mother, is a wolfwalker. Robyn is nipped by Mebh in their first encounter, which ends up transforming her into one of these creatures, complicating her situation at home. A fast friendship grows between the young girls and Robyn learns Mebh’s mother has disappeared in wolf form, leaving her sleeping body behind in the wolf lair. Robyn is convinced through her own interventions she can assist in solving the issue between the wolf pack and the fearful townsfolk, but the malevolent leader, Lord Protector (voice of Simon McBurney) has his own secret designs on Mebh’s animal clan.
Much like his breakout debut The Secret of Kells, Moore revisits the realm of considerable shapeshifting Irish lore, rife with leprechauns and selkies, fairies and demons. Like a platonic version of Beauty and the Beast, the danger faced by the protagonists here centers on the dread of difference, of misunderstanding and fear.
Sean Bean is well cast the kindly but gruff father Bill (one almost begins to see the actor’s face) while child actors Honor Kneafsey and Eva Whittaker imbue their characters with a playful innocence and naivete. But the power in Wolfwalkers is perhaps most evident in its autumnal tapestries, mixed with magical nighttime sequences fashioning the wolf spirits glinting through the dark. Simon McBurney channels malevolence as the Lord Protector, who deigns “that which cannot be tamed must be destroyed,” and, of course, Wolfwalkers dances into the inevitability of resolution, highlighting empathetic connections through the universal message of how we’re more alike than we are different from those who we may initially fear or misunderstand.