“I’m afraid one day you’ll end up in a cage. “I’m already in a cage!”
Wolfwalkers is the third offering from Cartoon Saloon that focuses on Irish folklore. Like the earlier films, Secret of the Kells and Song of the Sea, this is a brilliantly artistic animated film. The film is directed by Tomm Moore (who also directed the earlier films) and Ross Stewart. All three of the films are visually beautiful, as well as stories that engage and speak to our spirits. The artwork in the film draws on the art history of the time period, such as Celtic artwork.
Set in 1650, young Robyn Goodfellowe (a bit of a Shakespearean reference?) has come to Ireland with her English father. He father is a great huntsman, and he has been tasked with clearing the woods of wolves. Robyn fancies herself a huntress as well, but she is forbidden by her father from leaving the fortress/city. But Robyn is determined to head out, following her father at a distance. In the woods she comes across another girl, Mebh, whose behavior is more lupine than human. Mebh, we discover, is a wolfwalker—human when awake, but when asleep her spirit roams the world as a wolf. He mother, a wolfwalker who leads the wolves, has been asleep for a long time. After a bite from Mebh, Robyn discovers that she too has become a wolfwalker. As her father and the Lord Protector’s soldiers seek to destroy the wolves, Mebh and Robyn must try to find and rescue Mebh’s mother’s wolf body so she can lead the wolves to a safe area.
As in the other films in this series, there is a strong connection to nature—and the supernatural aspect of the natural world that is grounded in Irish folklore. There is a very clear difference between life in the town and life in the outside world. One of the key differences is freedom. It is not inconsequential that the Lord Protector, a sort of royal governor, is there to assert English rule. English flags are seen frequently. A reminder that Ireland spent a great deal of time in the “cages” of English oppression. Inside the city, everything is ordered. Everyone has their place and they are expected to act accordingly. The role that Robyn is assigned as a girl does not fit with the role that she believes is really hers. All of that is very different than the life in the woods. Mebh is able to roam freely. The animals live lives in harmony with all around them. We see that freedom in a series of scenes as Robyn and Mebh frolic in the woods while we hear Aurora’s song “Running with the Wolves”.
A key element of the oppression that the Lord Protector brings, is the idea that it is God’s will that order is maintained, including the taming and destruction of the natural world. This view of religion is very different from in The Secret of the Kells. The first film, set in a monastery, saw Celtic Christianity as one of the keystones of Irish identity. In Wolfwalkers we see that Christianity (or any religion) can also be an oppressive force. The kind of God the Lord Protector invokes is quite different than the God who is celebrated in Secret of the Kells.
While the film reflects certain political and spiritual aspects of freedom, like the other films in the series, the key is to discover the freedom within oneself and in our own nature. For Robyn and her father, the demands of the Lord Protector clash with their own sense of who they are. Even as a hunter Robyn’s father is deeply connected to the natural world. He is only following orders—orders he doesn’t feel capable of disobeying. It is only when Robyn, through her disobedience, leads him to a new understanding that he is able to stand for what is right.
An additional element is added to that concept of freedom when we consider that a bite from a wolfwalker changes the nature of someone who is bitten. Even before being bitten, Robyn was headstrong and independent. But after being bitten (and healed) by Mebh, she has a whole new understanding of the world she lives in. That bite and its transformative power is truly a gift that is bestowed on her. Perhaps another part of freedom is also being able to see the world as others do—to see our world in new ways.
Wolfwalkers won the Audience Award for Narrative Feature at AFIFest. It will be released in select theaters Nov. 13, and be available soon after on Apple TV.
Photos courtesy of GKids.