A decade ago, Tomm Moore startled the world by landing an Oscar nomination for “The Secret of Kells,” an independent animated feature that wowed those who saw it with its distinctive look (extrapolated from illuminated manuscripts) and near-phosphorescent palette (leaves so green they practically glow in the dark). At the time, outsider animation hardly stood a chance against Hollywood studios, but now, no one should be surprised if he lands another for “Wolfwalkers,” whose dazzling visual design makes “Kells” look positively prehistoric by comparison.
We might as well start with what a wolfwalker is: Instantly recognizable by their blazing round eyes and fiery red hair, these bewitching characters are neither human nor beast but some combination of the two. They speak to wolves as if by telekinesis, protecting people from possible attack — but what they’re really doing is defending the animals, who are directly endangered by the modernizing world around them.
When wolves feature into fairy tales, they’re nearly always the source of wickedness and deceit. Just ask Little Red Riding Hood; her experience with the species wasn’t exactly a positive one. But in “Wolfwalkers,” it’s the humans who are frightening, and these special guardians — gifted with the ability to shape-shift between human and canine form — who serve as our heroes. (Moore has barely softened the appearance of the vicious wolves seen in “Kells,” with their pointed faces and saw-sharp teeth, but entirely rethought the way we see them.)
His latest, co-directed by longtime collaborator Ross Stewart, brings the last two living wolfwalkers — Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and her wild-eyed daughter Mebh (rhymes with “Babe,” and voiced by Eva Whittaker) — together with the only person who might understand them, a tomboy named Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) who is eager to join her stern but concerned father, Bill (Sean Bean), in the hunt. The way things turn out, instead of killing wolves, Robyn becomes an important ally in their survival.
The story takes place in mid-17th-century Ireland, in and around Kilkenny (where Moore’s company, Cartoon Saloon, is headquartered). The walled city is being oppressed by an Oliver Cromwell-esque Lord Protector (Simon McBurney), who has come from England to “tame” the locals — as well as the woods where Mebh and her mom live. The Lord Protector (who looks and acts an awful lot like the barrel-chested Gov. Ratcliffe in Disney’s “Pocahontas”) orders Bill to clear the forest of the wild dogs.
As a girl, Robyn is expected to stay at home, doing scullery duty, but she sneaks out instead. Robyn fears the worst when she comes face to face with a wolf in a clearing, although this one looks different: It’s cuter, almost cuddly, and has the same three dots high on its cheek earlier seen on Mebh. If “Wolfwalkers” feels at first like a Celtic twist on “How to Train Your Dragon” — with its disapproving father constantly forbidding his kid from engaging with creatures humankind doesn’t understand — the film goes its own way from this point forth. After Mebh accidentally bites her, Robyn assumes the wolfwalkers’ magic powers: a sensitivity to smell, incredibly sharp hearing and the ability to run faster than she ever imagined. Oh, and when she sleeps, Robyn actually turns into a wolf, giving her a rare opportunity to see the world through their eyes (a striking perspective Moore calls “wolf-vision”).
Now it’s up to these two girls, whose blooming friendship is one of the movie’s greatest pleasures, to rescue Moll (captured by the Lord Protector at some point off-screen) and convince Bill that perhaps he’s fighting for the wrong side. The earlier “Pocahontas” comparison is apt in that regard, as both films depict the colonizing force as cruel and insensitive to the indigenous culture they’ve come to dominate, an idea that our own Lord Protector has described as an effort “to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children” — to which I say: Indoctrinate away!
Kids need movies like this that respect their intelligence, center strong female characters and question policies of blind obedience, while making an effort to integrate the rich cultural influences of a past that’s rapidly being bulldozed out of memory. Early on, the movie shows a woodblock posting warning the townsfolk of wolves, and Moore and Stewart ingeniously use this same technique — the look and feel of early propaganda — to represent Kilkenny, a city that looks as if it were carved and printed using the same technique. Robyn, Bill and most of the humans are drawn with sharp lines, though the colors bleed from these borders, as if crudely stamped on a primitive press. By contrast, Mebh and Moll are rendered in round strokes, loosely sketched as if by pencil, the colors bright and splotchy, like watercolor. High in the mountains, near the wolves’ den, megalithic carvings glow gold as composer Bruno Coulais’ Celtic score breathes life into the rich environments. (The film was digitally rendered using a program called TVPaint Animation, but the underlying look is distinctly hand-tooled.)
Of the various toon heroes Moore has imagined, Mebh feels the most vivacious. From her mischievous expressions, which reveal sharp canine teeth when she smiles, to an unruly mane littered with twigs and leaves, Mebh represents so many of the characteristics Pixar was going for with Princess Merida in “Brave” — independence, determination and defiance — embodied in a far more appealing design. The relatively lo-fi “Wolfwalkers” isn’t necessarily better than that film, but its female empowerment feels less forced. In the decade since “Kells,” it’s not just the technological advances that make Moore’s latest so impressive, but the rapidly changing cultural conversations as well. He brings everything together by borrowing from timeless visual influences, leaving audiences with another stunning artwork for the ages.
Correction: An earlier version of this review misidentified the software the filmmakers used to produce the animation. In fact, Cartoon Saloon worked with TVPaint Animation and Moho.