Wolfwalkers Review: Another One for the Ages

Eleven and half years after seeing the first film in Tomm Moore’s Celtic trilogy, The Secret of Kells, it was time to watch the last film in said trilogy. Wolkwalkers tells the story of English girl Robyn Goodfellowe as she grapples with life in the Irish city of Kilkenny where she receives a rather mythical revelation.

Robyn and her father have moved to Kilkenny as part of Oliver Cromwell’s English forces who have subdued the Irish. Cromwell tasked men like Robyn’s father with ridding the land of wolves as a means of making the forests safe for clearing. Robyn is the irrepressible young girl with notions of accompanying her father on his mission laying traps. However, a tragic occurrence during a wolf attack on sheep leads to a chance encounter with Mebh, a wolfwalker. What follows is a journey for Robyn as she navigates a complex web of relationships, responsibilities, politics, and self-introspection

My thoughts on The Secret of Kells, have aged much better than expected; given that they were written by a person with almost twelve fewer years of life experience but with reciprocal levels of over-enthusiasm. From this vantage point, that film has some flaws but nothing one couldn’t expect from a director making the most daunting undertaking of their [then] short career. Wolkwalkers gains from the additional years and experience of everyone involved in the best possible way, and it shows.

Wolkwalkers features the by now recongisable traits of a Moore/Cartoon Saloon feature film in every aspect. Visually, Irish Celtic and pagan mythology make for fertile grounds on which to tell a story. Lush colours lend their depth to the flat backgrounds which propagate excitement, exhilaration, and intrigue to every scene. Thematically, there is a stark contrast between the wild, native Irish landscapes, and the chaotic, urban Kilkenny overtaken by the English in their grey armour.

The animation proves, once again, that 3-D CGI endows a films with a best-by date. The Secret of Kells does not look like it was released in 2009, and undoubtedly in 20 years, Wolkwalkers will not look its age either. While not as fluid as the best and greatest, there is a simple pleasure in the traditional movements of the characters; there are no pretensions here. When called upon, the complexity arrives not in abundance, but with restraint. The film’s crew knew that gimmicks are not needed in this film, but a careful balance between the different elements is, and their care pays dividends. Nice touches such as the subtle traces of the pencil construction lines of the characters hint at the many human hands at work behind every frame; in stark contrast to a Pixar film where every whiff of human skill is buffed and polished out to showcase the latest capabilities of a piece of software.

The music by Bruno Coulais and Kila serve as the foundation for the storytelling experience. The music (and song by Aurora) provide the atmosphere that once again bring the viewer into the story instead of simply providing emotional cues.

The direction does a fine job servicing the story. Co-directors Moore and Ross Stewart are more than happy to let the art and story drive the direction rather than taking a Kubrick-esque approach where direction is everything. As with the animation, there is a restraint with a dash of fun, but when called upon for action scenes, there are ample reserves for a real surprise. The ‘wolfvision’ sequence in particular is praiseworthy for both its concept but also the amount of work that went into it.

Getting down to the nitty gritty, the characters took a while to warm up to. It’s not that they’re inherently cold or flat, but perhaps because at only 103 minutes and with a lot of ground to cover, the film has to get to the point fairly quickly. Robyn’s background is merely stated and I found myself craving more allusions to her past as away of driving her future. Mebh requires much less effort as her mythical origins are clearer, and her interactions with Robyn provide the little spark of interest on which the relationship rests. The Odd Couple this is not, but a getting-to-know-you tale in the finest form of the trope. Robyn’s father plays his part, with a relatable touch of being reluctantly subservient to his job for the benefit of his family. Cromwell makes for an interesting case since his reputation in Ireland differs from other countries but the film demures from playing to the worst of the feelings and opinions of the man. Focusing instead on his religious propriety and its unwelcome place in a land with other beliefs makes for a more universal villain but a less complex one.

There are only two aspects of Wolfwalkers to nitpick as a grown adult casting the critical eye on the film. The first is that the story felt somewhat formulaic and had just one thing too many shoehorned into the allotted running time. Less is sometimes more.

Secondly, I felt from watching Wolfwalkers that the film wears its influences a little bit too clearly. Setting aside the clear similarities to The Secret of Kells, shades of Pocahontas and the Hunchback of Notre Dame emanate from antagonist Oliver Cromwell. Robyn’s story is also uncannily like that of Jake Sully in Avatar among many others. One wonders if such influences are a deliberate hedge or a simple coincidence.

That being said, one influence that is less easy to spot is also one that others often make blatant. Wolfwalkers is arguably the more political, optimistic, family-friendly Irish version of Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki’s ability to influence needs no explanation, but it is nice to see his films being a source of reference for more than just story and animation.

All in all, Wolfwalkers is another winner and coming from someone who was initially pessimistic about the film, this is a good sign that others can be won over as well. Independent film is in an extraordinary period of growth and films like Wolfwalkers make recent news, such as Disney’s announcement of dozens of movies without a shred of originality, all the more insufferable. Wolfwalkers is the kind of film that I, as a parent, want my child to watch with an eye to seeing that sense of wonderment and awe spark in their eyes without having to worry about the pretensions of a brand’s corporate marketing department at work behind the scenes. Eminently worthy of your time, Wolfwalkers is on Apple’s streaming service now.

A Few Words on Adobe Flash

There has been a fair amount of chatter over the last few days in response to a letter from Steve Jobs,  the head of Apple Computer, where he basically says that Adobe Flash is unsuitable for use in the Web 2.0 world.

Animators have been quick to jump into the debate, which isn’t surprising seeing as numerous TV shows have been made over the years including Cartoon Saloon’s very own Skunk Fu! as pictured above.

With a post over on Cartoon Brew, the debate is pretty much divided with plenty of people supporting the format and plenty of people against it. Having never used it, I can’t pick a side even if I wanted to. Sure there is some truly awful animation produced in flash, but there always has been truly awful animation produced at some point. it’s a poor workman that blames his tools.

Is flash perfect? No of course it isn’t. It was never designed for use in TV shows. It was meant for quick animations on the web. It’s great that someone figured out that it could be used to animate a TV show, but that’s kinda like me using MS Word to make a flip book. It can be done, but it’s not perfect.

Back to Steve Jobs. He’s within his rights to ban flash from Apple devices if he wants, that’s his way of doing things. However, I know myself how many places it pops up on the web because I use NoScript, and I have to approve a lot of flash stuff.

The only problem I have is that he’s trying to force people to move on to the next format (HTML5) when that’s not quite ready yet. This is similar to when he launched the iMac without a floppy drive. A brave choice but floppys stayed around for at least another 5 years.

The problem is that there is no immediate replacement, at least for animators. Sure they have some choice in regards to producing animation, but flash is by far the cheapest, most popular solution right now, and it will take time for a similar product to emerge.

I could get on my soapbox at this point and argue that we need some sort of open standards but that’s never going to happen, at least not for an industry such as animation.

Right now the whole thing is a bit of a moot point. We’ll all just have to sit tight until a solution comes around, which it will. There’s money to be made in one, and if that’s the case, somebody is bound to figure it out.