Thursday, December 31, 2020

Movie Review: Wolfwalkers

Cartoon Saloon has kind of been flying under the radar, but if you ignore a handful of TV shows and low budget co-productions and just focus on their four feature films, Saloon's batting average looks a lot like what we saw from Studio Ghibli, Laika, or early Pixar. Their first three films - Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner - were masterpieces.

Scratch that. Their first four films are masterpieces: Wolfwalkers keeps the run going.

Visually, the movie is incredible. Some stylistic elements from Kells and Sea reappear, but this almost has the feel of an old picture book come to life. Sketch lines highlight the forms of living beings, color disappears at the edge of the screen, and distant locations are depicted as if existing in a world without perspective. The movie's story is as much set in its media as its historical location.

Think Disney's Winnie the Pooh, but less far silly. Or, if you'd prefer, apply some of the lessons of Spider-Verse to a storybook. I'm not sure if these were points of inspiration, nor does it matter. However they got to this style, it's enchanting.

And speaking of enchanting, if Disney would kindly instruct their animators to study Cartoon Saloon's depictions of magic, that'd be swell. I'm not naming names, but I can think of several recent Disney flicks which sided with spectacle over substance in ways that neither told a story nor enhanced the tone. Cartoon Saloon adds depth and wonder with magic: everyone else should be taking notes.

The movie's story goes in directions American animation companies wouldn't dare. Like The Secret of Kells, Wolfwalkers's themes include the relationship between paganism and Christianity in Irish history and myth. Unlike Kells, Wolfwalkers is more than happy to lay blame. On a side note, have religious groups started boycotting this yet?

I joked after watching that it was based on the ancient Irish myth, "Princess Mononoke," but while there are definitely some similarities, they're ultimately superficial. Wolfwalkers starts with a vaguely similar premise and crosses over a few similar plot points, but the path it takes is its own. The movie is more concerned with character and theme than plot, anyway.

Like its predecessors, Wolfwalkers leans heavily on music to build tone. Both Kells and Song of the Sea included evocative lullabies which add a great deal of texture to their respective films. The centerpiece in Wolfwalkers is quite different: they went with a sort of pop-folk song reminiscent of America's music from The Last Unicorn. It's a good song, though I'd be lying if I said it hit me as hard as the songs from the other two films (but then again I'd list at least one of those on my top five favorite musical numbers in all cinema, so maybe that's an unreasonably high bar). At any rate, the score for this is really, really good - Cartoon Saloon knows not to cut corners.

While I obviously haven't seen every animated film released this year, Wolfwalkers is easily my favorite for 2020. That's not meant as a slight against Soul, which was also excellent, but I found this one a little more effective.

For the time being, this is available through Apple TV+, which offers free 1-week trials. I'm not saying you should sign up, watch this, then cancel, but... no, wait. I am absolutely saying that. You can watch this right now for free: what are you waiting for?

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