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Given its pedigree, expectations were undeniably lofty for Wolfwalkers, the final installment in Tomm Moore’s gorgeously animated Irish folklore trilogy, following Oscar nominations for 2009’s The Secret of Kells and 2014’s Song of the Sea. The beautifully rendered result proves to be even more than one had hoped for: a visually dazzling, richly imaginative, emotionally resonant production that taps into contemporary concerns while being true to its distant origins.
Set against the 17th century backdrop of Oliver Cromwell’s bloody colonization of Ireland, the film, co-directed by Ross Stewart, manages to find no scarcity of magic lurking in the bleakness, while tenderly weaving together themes of belonging, female empowerment, environmental preservation and religious persecution.
Following its North American premiere at TIFF as a Special Event presentation, the Apple original film will be streamed around the world on Apple TV+ after a theatrical release by GKIDS (which also distributed the two previous Moore efforts).
Recently arriving from England, young, spirited Robyn Goodfellowe (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) would rather assist her widowed hunter father (Sean Bean) — who has been ordered by the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) to wipe out the last remaining wolf pack in the county of Kilkenny — than spend her lonely days confined to the scullery.
But one day, while sneaking out to explore the quickly diminishing wooded area located just beyond the city walls, Robyn and her trusty pet owl Merlin encounter Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a scrappy, sassy ginger-haired wild child with an understandable distrust of townies.Turns out that both Mebh and her mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy) are, in fact, Wolfwalkers, equal parts human and lupine, possessing the ability to communicate with wolves as well as magical healing powers. As Robyn’s friendship with Mebh intensifies, her life becomes inextricably intertwined with those of the imperiled creatures her father has been dispatched to hunt down.
Like The Secret of Kells (which Moore co-directed with Nora Twomey) and Song of the Sea, Wolfwalkers is steeped in Celtic and pre-Celtic imagery (not to mention a playful nod or two in the direction of Japan’s Studio Ghibli), with a beguiling script by Will Collins that charms even while refusing to shy away from the story’s darker underpinnings.
Energetically delivering the character goods is the voice cast led by Kneafsey and Whittaker, whose undiluted Northern England and Irish brogues make for some engagingly breezy banter between the two self-possessed lasses.
Visually, while once again relying on traditional hand-drawn animation, Moore changes things up slightly, incorporating both an angular woodblock style and free-form line renderings that effectively differentiate the regimented lives of the townies and the fantasy world of the Wolfwalkers. Providing further contrast are the predominant watercolor schemes alternating between amber autumnal hues and the otherworldly nocturnal blues that play an increasing role in Robyn’s new life.
Underscoring the wondrous mood is another soulful score by French composer Bruno Coulais, who worked on the previous two Moore films, in collaboration with the Irish folk outfit Kila that subtly rises to the dramatic occasion whenever necessary.
Even as Moore closes the chapter on his Irish folklore trilogy, one shouldn’t expect his Cartoon Saloon production company to venture too far from its winning source material, considering that Netflix has picked up its next production, the Nora Twomey-directed My Father’s Dragon, due in 2021.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Events)
Distribution: GKIDS, Apple TV+
Production companies: Cartoon Saloon, Melusine Productions
Cast: Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney, Tommy Tiernan, Maria Doyle Kennedy
Directors: Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart
Screenwriter: Will Collins
Producers: Paul Young, Nora Twomey, Tomm Moore, Stephan Roelants
Executive producers: Gerry Shirren, Fabien Renelli, Zhang Shuo, Yang Ying, Didier Brunner, Damien Brunner, Eric Beckman, David Jesteadt:
Art Direction: Ross Stewart, Tomm Moore, Maria Pareja
Editors: Richie Cody, Darren Holmes, Darragh Byrne
Music: Bruno Coulais in collaboration with Kila
Casting director: Louise Kiely
Sales: Cartoon Saloon
Rated PG, 102 minutes
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