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"WOLFWALKERS"
(2020) (voices of Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Animated Drama: A young, aspiring wolf hunter of the 17th century finds herself immersed in the world of a pack of wolves and the human wolfwalkers who lead them.
PLOT:

It's 1650 and young Robyn Goodfellowe (voice of HONOR KNEAFSEY) and her widowed father Bill (voice of SEAN BEAN) have moved from England to the fortressed town of Kilkenny, Ireland. There, the militant leader, Lord Protector (voice of SIMON McBURNEY), has enlisted Bill to hunt down and kill all the local wolves so that the woodcutters can clear the local forest to allow farmers to use the land. Despite not being allowed outside the gated walls, Robyn envisions herself as a wolf hunter like her father and desires to join him on the hunt.

Breaking his rules, she one day sneaks out with her pet hawk, Merlin, ends up in the forest, and encounters some wolves. During a melee at a local farm, she ends up accidentally shooting Merlin with her crossbow, but before she can get to him, a feral-like girl, Mebh Óg MacTíre (voice of EVA WHITTAKER), scampers out, grabs the bird, and disappears back into the forest.

Despite her father taking her back into the protection of the walled town, Robyn sneaks out again and encounters Mebh, only to learn that she's a wolfwalker -- a human while awake, but the spirit of a wolf while asleep. Initially enemies, the two girls become friends, with Mebh explaining that her mother -- seen asleep in human form as Moll (voice of MARIA DOYLE KENNEDY) -- is out trying to find them a new and safe home, but hasn't been seen in a long time.

From that point on, Robyn does what she can to protect her new friend and her wolves, all while Lord Protector puts increased pressure on Bill to do his job and kill the wolves as soon as possible.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10

Considering the level of education for most people centuries ago, the lack of scientific studies and analysis, and the persistence of superstition, it's no surprise that people believed in things that turned out to be utterly false.

The fact that some folks nowadays still believe such things -- such as the world being flat -- is beyond comprehension. Yet I can understand why witches and various monsters were believed to be true long ago among the less educated and gullible, and were used by those in power -- likely knowing the facts to be otherwise -- to persecute others.

While "witches" got the lion's share of such accusations -- and punishment -- over the centuries, I was surprised to learn that a smaller subset of unfortunate people received similar treatment due to beliefs and charges that they were werewolves (especially, sadly, anyone suffering from hypertrichosis, which could have been the genesis of such legends).

Hopefully, few if any genuinely believe in them now -- although the presence of flat-earthers likely means I'm wrong -- but many enjoy having them featured in works of fiction. Of course, most associate that with the likes of Lon Chaney Jr. playing the title character in "The Wolfman'' with a full moon being the catalyst for such beastly change, but such anthropomorphic versions are a somewhat new variation of the original legend.

In the old days, being a werewolf (or lycanthrope) referred to people who could shapeshift into regular looking wolves and while they don't get as much representation in movies or TV shows, they're the attraction in the fabulous, animated offering "Wolfwalkers." It's the third installment of Tomm Moore's "Irish Folklore Trilogy" that began in 2009 with "The Secret of Kells" and continued with 2014's "Song of the Sea."

Working alongside co-director Ross Stewart from a script by Will Collins, the film arrives in the same hand-drawn, watercolor-inspired animated form as its predecessors. That visual style might initially be somewhat (or a lot) off-putting to those who've been weaned on or grown accustomed to what computer-animation can deliver in terms of photorealism and depth.

But as is the case with any sort of engaging offering, it's the story that matters and that can transcend any such objections, although I imagine many viewers -- including yours truly -- will appreciate the beauty of old-school, painstakingly drawn and definitely artsy renderings.

Visuals aside, the tale is of the "once upon a time" variety featuring a headstrong girl, Robyn (voiced by Honor Kneafsey), who lives in a faraway land (unless one is from Ireland or close environs), long, long ago (1650 to be exact) who fancies herself a wolf hunter like dear old dad, Bill (Sean Bean).

Following the never-specified death of his wife, he's moved Robyn from England to the Irish town of Kilkenny where the leader, Lord Protector (Simon McBurney), has enlisted him to hunt down and kill all wolves outside the walled town so that woodcutters can clear the land for farming.

Not particularly thrilled with the idea of being a young scullery maid, Robyn wants to join her old man on his hunting expeditions, but he forbids that, what with it being against the town's rules for one and the fact that his girl has never actually seen let alone encountered a real wolf.

Undeterred, Robyn sneaks out to follow her dad, but in an attempt to shoot a wolf that's menacing a farmer and his sheep, she's bumped and her crossbow arrow lands in her pet hawk and best friend (the thankfully non-talking Merlin). But before she can get to him, her dad whisks her away to safety, with her only getting a fleeting glimpse of a feral-like girl grabbing the bird and disappearing into a thicket.

She eventually finds that girl and comes to learn that Mebh (Eva Whittaker) is a wolfwalker who not only commands the local wolf pack, but can also become one in a spiritual, out of her body while she's asleep fashion, albeit one that the humans see as very real.

What follows is the two girls becoming besties and Robyn's attempts to dissuade her father from continuing to follow Lord Protector's orders, all while Mebh tries to find her mom whose sleeping body is in the den, but whose spirit wolf is MIA.

I'm happy to report that the film is engaging from start to finish, with empathetic characters, a well-told tale about coexisting with nature and challenging one's beliefs, and a visual style that's welcomingly old school and befitting the era in which the story is set. If anything, hopefully it will keep beliefs of werewolves and such in the world's collective imagination and out of perceived reality. "Wolfwalkers" rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed January 7, 2021 / Posted January 8, 2021


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