To begin with, Wolfwakers seems overtly familiar. We are in a medieval fantasy world in which a tyrannical ruler is trying to destroy nature (the surrounding woodlands) to extend their rule and nature is fighting back, in this film in the form of routine wolf attacks. It is a man versus nature setup, an overt ecological allegory which has become commonplace in a lot of family focused animated films. It is not that the ideas are a problem, it is that they have been explored in so many ways that to return to them feels like a retread – especially considering how even Studio Ghibli (who perfected these themes with Princess Mononoke) sometimes feel overtly referential and familiar in this category. However, Wolfwalkers actually excels because it goes beyond this, breaking out of familiar metaphor into a very specific, and very well handled, allegory that is willing to go deeper – and to be more nuanced – than almost any of its peers.
Wolfwalkers already feels like a modern masterpiece of the family animation genre. The core of this brilliance is in how well it handles very complex and evocative themes. It is a film that will speak well to children, with a clear and exciting narrative populated with compelling characters and real personality. There is a lot on the surface here, some of it familiar, but this familiar surface is used to make the subtext, or just the wider themes, work so well. Wolfwalkers is fluent in the language of fantasy, it feels like a unique universe full of magic and imagination. The differentiating part of its universe is a group of werewolf like individuals able to be wolves in their sleep, leaving their sleeping bodies to adventure. These wolfwalkers also have healing magic powers, and, due to being different and powerful, are stigmatised. This is a blunt metaphor for intolerance bu the film is brilliant because everything around this has such specificity, and is so sharp.
While the fantasy is perfectly conveyed, the film is also fluent in the language of reality. This does not invent foreign lands and new concepts, it does not hide anti-imperialist politics (and a strong anti-colonial message) behind artifice and invention, it speaks plainly. The film is set in Ireland and the imperialist force are the British. The British soldiers, specifically the leader, talks of Paganism and cites God as on his side. He also repeatedly exclaims his desire to ‘tame’ the land. It is wonderful to see a family focused film not be shy about its anti-colonial politics. By using the actual language of history, and of today’s struggles, this film is able to tap into deeper themes and to hit much harder. It is also able to open up brilliant conversations with young people, the fantasy narrative making it deeply accessible but the film itself is never willing to sugarcoat or dilute important ideas and concepts. Through this narrative approach, the film is able to contextualise the need for violent struggle against an oppressor and to show the inherent cruelty and hypocrisy of colonial rule. It also deftly evades negative tropes of anti-authoritarian fiction, in which fascistic regimes are more often than not shown as ruthlessly efficient. There is a toxic idea, often pushed by fiction, that fascists are effective and elite, but evil (only this latter part being true) – which has a lot of uncomfortable connotations regarding superiority. In this film, the imperialists are a believable shambles. They win through numbers rather than any kind of faux superiority.
This aside, the most overt strength of Wolfwalkers is that it is just stunning. It is one of the most beautiful animated films you will see: crisp 2D animation (also supported by a wonderful soundtrack) with a striking art style. Beyond this though, the composition is perfect. The style of the film is beautiful but the way imagery is set up is peerless, with every frame being something you would want to hang on a wall. The film uses focal points so well, then has beautiful imagery spread out from them. Frequently, compositions focus on the centre and spiral out in an abstract fashion, looking beyond stunning. It also keeps one-upping itself, finding new ways to compose the perfect image and continuing to show a wonderful visual imagination. Words really cannot do it justice, it is a unique style used to perfection in a way that rises it above almost any animation in recent memory.
Quite simply, family animation does not get better than Wolfwalkers. It is charming when it needs to be; beautiful always and impressively political. It will prompt powerful conversations and treats important topics with precision. It may feel familiar at points, but this is a base familiarity that helps it to transcend expectations and to do something different.
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