“Even a man pure of heart who says his prayers by night may turn into a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” So goes the most famous werewolf incantation in pop culture, a Halloween-ready warning that even the most civilized men can be overwhelmed by animalistic urges and transform into savage monsters. But does the fusion of human and animal always have to be so demonic? An alternative is offered in the lovely new animated film Wolfwalkers, where the transformation of humans into wolves comes off quite differently than most spooky werewolf tales — not least by making the process primarily matriarchal.
Wolfwalkers (now playing in select theaters, and on AppleTV+ starting Dec. 11) is the latest animated film from the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, which first made its mark with the dazzling, Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells in 2009. Subsequent films like 2014’s Song of the Sea and 2017’s The Breadwinner have continued to earn acclaim for their cute character designs and seamless blend of history and myth, but Wolfwalkers deserves a new level of praise for the way it takes previous Cartoon Saloon themes (such as the porous relationship between man and nature) to new heights of artistry.
The film, directed by studio co-founder Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, centers on two girls from different sides of the civilization/nature divide. Young English girl Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) has just moved to Kilkenny, Ireland alongside her father Bill (Sean Bean), whose hunting skills are required to clear the surrounding forests of wolves so that they can be turned into farmland. Bound by an oath to Robyn’s late mother to keep their daughter safe, Bill hopes to keep her inside their new home to protect her from both the wild forests and the suffocating gender roles of Puritan society. But in the tradition of previous Cartoon Saloon protagonists, Robyn is too curious and adventurous to be locked away forever. She escapes confinement and enters the woods, where she meets someone who completely changes her life.
Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whittaker) and her mother are the last wolfwalkers, shapeshifters who live alongside wolves and transform into their own wolf forms whenever their human bodies fall asleep. Mebh’s mother has been asleep for awhile; recognizing the danger posed by the English, she'd set out in wolf form to find a new home for the pack, but still hasn’t returned to her human body, which remains sleeping in a cave. Mebh won’t say how long she’s been gone, but it’s the only subject that dampens her otherwise unshakable confidence. Mebh doesn’t want to believe her mom is gone for good, partly because that would mean she has to accept the adult responsibility of leading the pack elsewhere herself.
Despite their differences, Robyn and Mebh get along like fast friends. They are curious about each other rather than fearful or aggressive, which makes them quite different from the patriarchal authority represented by Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney). This is not Cromwell the revolutionary leader of Marxist history or the hero of liberty seen by contemporary English republicans; rather, this is Cromwell as he is remembered in Ireland, where his oppression of Catholics is often described as ethnic cleansing. Granted, the character is never referred to by proper name; Wolfwalkers calls him only by his title, “Lord Protector,” which allows the filmmakers some needed flexibility in their fictionalized portrayal of him.
Compared to the young female protagonists, constantly scampering about in their eagerness to explore the world, the Lord Protector is cold, cruel, and unmoving. Yet the brilliance of Cartoon Saloon’s storytelling is that the viewer always understands where each character is coming from, which makes their various conflicts even more painful. The Lord Protector knows that his authority is shaky, having only recently wrested it away from a deposed king; so he believes that destroying the wolves is necessary to prove to the Irish people that he can be trusted to protect them. Meanwhile, Bill’s desire to protect Robyn often ends up blinding her (and himself) to the real dangers of their new home. Robyn's eagerness to prove herself as capable as her father leads her to underestimate her father's warnings, while Mebh's confidence in her mother leads her to overestimate the wolfwalkers' strength.
All these attitudes collide like an unstoppable force meeting immovable objects. The only real solution to such a conflict, short of total destruction, is to change direction. While the first half of Wolfwalkers focuses on the child characters confronting harsh realities about the adult world, the latter part of the movie sees those kids reintroducing their adult counterparts to the magic of childhood and the state of nature. Bill gets to make a choice that has often been denied other Sean Bean father figures, while Cromwell’s great failure here is that he refuses the call to change. But that doesn’t mean we have to.
Wolfwalkers was still in production when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Cartoon Saloon’s animators were forced to complete their work remotely. It may have been a blessing in disguise, because in the type of fascinating coincidence we’ve seen with a couple other great works of art this year, Wolfwalkers has extra resonance in the time of plague. All the conflict in the movie derives from English conquerors pushing too far into the natural territory of the wolves, similar to how many scientists believe COVID-19 first entered the human population from farmers pushing too far into Chinese bat habitats. The relationship between humans and nature should not be one of conquest and dominance, but of learning how to live safely alongside each other. B+