The Wolf Within

An animated film inspired by Celtic folklore offers a timely parable

Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Wolfwalkers
Apple TV+
Opens Dec. 11

4.5 out of 5

Irish animation has it going on. Following the excellent The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea (both Oscar nominated) here comes the Celtic folklore-infused Wolfwalkers. What’s more, it may be the best of the bunch.

Set during the English colonization of Ireland in the 16th century, Robyn, a settler tween hungry for adventure, befriends Mebh, a wild child who turns into a wolf when she sleeps. The unlikely friendship is threatened by the king’s envoy — the Lord Protector. To win over the locals, he’s promised to burn the surrounding forest to get rid of the wolves, perceived as a threat.

Robyn, who’s the daughter of the crown’s hunter (Sean Bean), unexpectedly becomes a wolfwalker, and finds herself on the wrong side of her dad’s crossbow.

The film is an achievement in every respect: gorgeous 2D animation, compelling plot, delightful leads, and filled to the brim in meaning.

Wolfwalkers demonstrates the versatility of hand-drawn filmmaking. By using limited perspective, the movie looks compact, like a medieval tapestry or painting. But not even 103 minutes of Vermeer paintings would work without a good story.

Robyn and Mebh’a respective parents, in their efforts to keep the girls safe, put them at risk. The film makes a strong case for free-range children and allowing them to exercise judgement. There’s a feminist undertone, but it at no point overtakes the narrative, a problem too many “woke” pictures encounter (see The Craft: Legacy).

Wolfwalkers also operates at a macro level. The Lord Protector is a fundamentalist who uses religion and fear of the “other” to keep the populace under control (“tame the wolf, tame the land”). It’s a tried-and-true approach still very much alive — see every country ruled by a right-wing nut. The movie is also not kind in portraying the masses: uncaring and deluded, at best.

Every single message in Wolfwalkers rings true. It’s pro-environment, anti-populist and advocates for independent thinking. As children’s movies go, this one is way ahead of the curve.