“Wolfwalkers,” the new movie from Oscar-nominated “Song of the Sea” and “The Secret of Kells” filmmaker Tomm Moore, is one of the most gorgeous animated films you’ll ever see and one of the best films of 2020. (Ross Stewart, an art director on those films, is the co-director).
Set in Ireland in 1650 during the English colonization of Ireland, it pits the iron rule of the English empire against the natural world of Ireland. Caught in the middle is young Robyn Goodfellowe (voiced by Honor Kneafsey), who longs to accompany her father, Bill Goodfellowe (voiced by Sean Bean) on his hunts.
Robyn is ordered to stay inside the walled city for her own safety, but she doesn’t that let her stop her from following her father as he sets traps for the wolves in the forest. Her disastrous foray ends with Robyn’s beloved falcon Merlin wounded and left behind.
Defying her father, she goes back for Merlin and meets a flame-haired girl Mebh MacTíre (Eva Whittaker) who lives in the forest. Mebh is a Wolfwalker, who has magical powers including communing with wolves. In the forest, Robyn finds the freedom and joy that’s missing from the dismal city and is soon torn in her loyalties of being the obedient daughter her father wants and her true self.
The hand-drawn animation is spectacular: The swirls and swoops of the forest, the rune-like way the wolf pack gathers, the wonders of nature versus the cold hard stone of the city. The whole movie is a visual feast.
The storyline is reminiscent of “How To Train Your Dragon:” Like Hiccup, Robyn’s curiosity and natural kindness leads her to befriend — not demonize — the clan’s supposed mortal enemy. And “Wolfwalkers” characters are equally compelling.
Having Sean Bean on board can’t help but remind us of his most famous film character, the heroic and ultimately good-natured Boromir from “Lord of the Rings.” Simon McBurney voices the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell with all the brimstone and fire of the vindictive judge in Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and imperialist zeal of the villainous Clayton of Disney’s “Tarzan.”
But the heart of the movie is the girls’ transformative friendship. It’s a fantastic fairy tale that has its share of scary and sad moments, but ends most happily. It’s one of my favorite films of the year and arguably the best animated film since “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”
“Wolfwalkers” is now playing in select theaters. It comes to AppleTV on December 13.
Rating: 4 out of 4 paws: