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Wolfwalkers is animated storytelling at its finest

The gorgeously animated new film from the makers of The Secret of Kells warns against those who reject magic for authoritarian rule.

A cartoon girl’s face is overlaid with a wolf shape.
Robyn Goodfellowe (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) in Wolfwalkers.
Cartoon Saloon/Apple TV+
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The allure of a myth or a fairy tale isn’t in its story alone; it’s in some bigger truth conveyed through feeling and form. Legends are true in a deep sense, even if the events they describe never happened.

Those deep truths, and the images that convey them, is what makes Wolfwalkers so bewitching. An animated retelling of a legend about part-human, part-wolf creatures, Wolfwalkers comes from Cartoon Saloon, the acclaimed Irish animation studio behind films such as the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014). The studio’s productions are easy to spot, because while the style varies slightly from film to film, there’s an embodied quality to the artwork. You can sense the artist behind it. Nothing feels as if it was generated by a machine.

A wolf looks into a cave.
Wolfwalkers’s every frame is gorgeous.
Cartoon Saloon/Apple TV+

Cartoon Saloon is headquartered in Kilkenny, and for Wolfwalkers it stayed close to home. The tale is set in 1650, when (as legend would have it) the city was occupied by the English, headed by a pious and cruel man whom everyone calls the Lord Protector.

It’s never said outright, but given Irish history, it’s clear that the Lord Protector is Oliver Cromwell, who laid siege to Kilkenny, forced it to its knees, and took over as its ruler in 1650. Cromwell, a Puritan, was famously tolerant of various religious groups — as long as they were Protestant sects. The Irish were Catholic, and that strain of Christianity, combined with Ireland’s rich heritage of magic and ancient culture, presented a threat to the English social order.

Wolfwalkers plays with that history, while telling a story that transcends it. Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, it’s the tale of Robyn Goodfellowe (voiced by Honor Kneafsey), a young English girl who has come to Kilkenny with her father Bill (Sean Bean), a wolfhunter. The Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) is adamant that the wolves who live in the woods near the city’s walls must be hunted down and destroyed, so that the forest can be cleared to prepare it for farming by the townspeople.

Robyn worships her father, a broad-shouldered, kind-hearted man who believes in obeying orders and keeping his motherless daughter safe. But she’s also curious about what lies beyond the city gates, and begs him to take her wolf-hunting with him. He refuses. But one day Robyn slips out and meets a little girl with a fiery red crop of hair named Mebh (Eva Whittaker). Or is Mebh a girl?

Two cartoon girls, one with fiery red hair and one with blonde braids, stand in the middle of a lush green forest, surrounded by friendly wolves.
Mebh and Robyn in the woods.
Cartoon Saloon/Apple TV+

No — it turns out that Mebh is a wolfwalker, a mythical being who is human when she’s awake, but transforms into a wolf when her human body falls asleep, and is free to roam the forest. Mebh’s mother is a wolfwalker, too, but her human form has been asleep for ages in their den, where the whole pack lives. Mebh isn’t sure where her mother’s wolf spirit has gone, or why she won’t return. Robyn promises to help Mebh. But what she discovers threatens to upend the social order entirely.

To watch Wolfwalkers is to dive into visual splendor. For the most part, the characters are rendered in geometric shapes, all smooth curves and straight lines, with exaggerated features of the type you might find carved into a cave wall. Similarly, the perspective is occasionally distorted, so we can see all of the items laid on top of a table even if we are looking at it from the side. When we look down from an aerial view at the town of Kilkenny, it’s just rows of housetops, punctuated by large churches and castles that are rotated or shifted so that we can see their fronts.

That kind of dimensional flattening is purposeful; it makes the whole story feel more ancient, like people from the past have drawn it for us to find later. But this style meshes with others in the film — fearsome flashes of bared teeth, cropped shots that highlight frightened eyes, triptychs that show us multiple views of what’s happening in a whole town square at a glance, and fire that seems drawn with pastels and charcoal. Sometimes the foreground is laid on top of backgrounds that seem not quite filled in or finished, with the draft marks still visible, as if the artists wish to remind us of the storytelling roots of these folk tales.

A wolf leaping over rooftops at night.
A wolf leaps above the roofs of Kilkenny.
Cartoon Saloon/Apple TV+

And the story they have to tell is important. The Lord Protector, we’re meant to understand, is always talking about “the Lord,” but it’s a sly play on words; visually, we start to see that he sees himself as the arbiter of what the Lord wants. He says the Irish people will have nothing to fear if they “trust the Lord’s will.” When he prays, he doesn’t ask what the Lord’s will is — he tells the Lord, “it is your will.” He looks at his own reflection in his sword and declares, “Lord God Almighty protect me.” In his own mind, he has created a god in his own image to replace any real deity or force who might have a different plan in mind than the Lord Protector’s own.

The way he carries out that plan is by severely restricting the people’s movement, eradicating their religion, and clearing the wolves — who represent demonic or uncouth powers from beyond — so that the town can be put to work for the Lord Protector’s ends. Bill Goodfellowe, in trying to do right by his daughter, unwittingly becomes part of the Lord Protector’s suffocating endgame, stamping out the culture of the people the English have vanquished.

So the story of Wolfwalkers is on the one hand, about the powerful losing their grip at the hands of the most unlikely people — in this case, a little girl and her half-wolf friend. It’s also a story of what fear does to people: It makes them willing to be complicit with evil, while convincing themselves they are doing right. The only thing that can conquer fear is love, and Wolfwalkers loves its characters, their world, and the stunning beauty of human life. But most of all, it loves the truth that is buried within the myth.

Wolfwalkers premieres on Apple TV+ on December 11.

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