Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, part of the team behind such traditionally-animated modern classics as “The Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea,” score another old-school triumph with “Wolfwalkers,” an Irish tale with something to offer viewers of all ages.
There’s wit and adventure, and a pair of delightful young friends whose determination saves the day, but there’s also stunning art and cogent observations about colonization, stewarding the environment, ruling through fear and misinformation, the perils of over-protective parenting, and England’s centuries-long effort to control the Irish, both materially and spiritually.
It’s 1650 in Kilkenny, Ireland, to be exact, where we meet young Robyn Goodfellowe (voiced by Honor Kneafsey of the “A Christmas Prince” trilogy). Robyn dreams of being a fearsome wolf-hunter like her father Bill (Sean Bean), but his paramount concern is keeping Robyn safe, as his late wife would have wished. Bill has his hands full: Lord Protector Cromwell (Simon McBurney, “The Conjuring 2”) wants the forests outside of Kilkenny’s walls to be cleared, with the resident wolves either slaughtered or banished.
When Robyn follows her father into the woods one day, she learns that the legendary “wolfwalkers” — human beings who can shape-shift into wolves and commune with their lupine brethren — are real when she meets the feisty Mebh (Maeve) (Eva Whittaker), whose mother left the forest (in wolf form) to find a new home for the wolves but has yet to return. In attempting to save Mebh and all the other wolves, Robyn finds herself in conflict with both her father and the fearsome Lord Protector.
So yes, there’s a little “Avatar” here and “Brave” there, but Moore and Stewart lay out a variety of visual styles to buttress their story (scripted by Will Collins, “Song of the Sea”). The human world is boxy; inside the gates of Kilkenny, everything looks simultaneously flat and multi-dimensional, like a storybook illustration where objects are stacked on top of each other yet also creating depth and horizon. Within the Lord Protector’s castle, the visuals get even flatter, so that climbing a spiral staircase resembles an Escher print.
Out in the forest, however, there’s a vibrancy, and when the wolfwalkers assume their wolf form, the color scheme and lighting give us an idea of how they look, how they hear, and even what they smell. The wolves here are as far as you can get from count-the-hairs, photo-realist computer animation, but they are alternately fearsome and adorable; when under the sway of a wolfwalker, they undulate across the forest like waves in the ocean.
There’s a historical specificity behind the Irish resentment of their English colonizers, but there’s also a universality to the story being told here; Christian settlers using violence to quash pagan beliefs and traditions is a global phenomenon, and Cromwell’s strong-man tactics remain popular among frightened little dictators who know of no other way to control, let alone appeal to, their constituency.
It’s a stunning production all around, from the delightfully lilting score by Bruno Coulais (“Coraline”) — which avoids Irish clichés — to the dynamic voice work: Kneafsey makes Robyn as relatable and dynamic a heroine as McBurney is a wicked, hissable villain.
This is an eco-fable to show to young viewers who might not yet be ready for “Princess Mononoke,” but their parents should stick around as well. (The film will screen on Apple TV+ following theatrical distribution by GKIDS in the U.S.) The many lessons that “Wolfwalkers” has to share, whether they’re about the relationships between children and parents or between people and nature, are ones you can never be too old to learn.