There are not a huge number of distinctive animation styles out there. Disney has one, Ghibli has one, Aardman has one, Pixar has one – even Dreamworks has one, though it’s not great. Most others are a variation on one of those. Cartoon Saloon, the Irish animation studio responsible for the likes of The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, is one of those that does, so it’s always interesting to see the next thing they might have on offer. The films have an angular, construction paper look to them that places you straight into the appropriate mindset for a storybook fantasy world.
The thing these other studios have in common is that they are forever fine-tuning their craft, trying to make their animation sharper, more tactile, more real. Cartoon Saloon seems to have done something curiously opposite with Wolfwalkers, its new storybook fantasy that has just debuted on AppleTV+. While individual moments are as resplendent as anything director Tomm Moore and his companions – in this case co-director Ross Stewart — have ever put on screen, there are some parts of this film that look like a first draft, for want of a better word. In these moments, the characters – the problem is usually with the characters, not the scenery – appear to have been drawn to a level sufficient for proof of concept or storyboarding, and abandoned in incomplete form.
This doesn’t seem like an accident, because almost nothing an animation studio does with the appearance of its product hasn’t been fussed over and workshopped for hours. It seems like a conscious grasp at something looser, almost as though going for those moments in earlier Ghibli films where the otherwise sober tone is broken by a character’s face lighting up in squiggly exaggeration.
The result, unfortunately, is a distracting sort of flatness. Describing the style as looking like construction paper does not rule it out from having depth, but especially scenes with a lot of people, which might ordinarily boast great depth, leave all the picture elements competing on the same plane of animated existence. When you combine that with a sort of flatness in the storytelling, Wolfwalkers just isn’t as memorable as it should be.
The biggest problem with the Wolfwalkers’ story is that it remains mired in the limitations of big fairytale archetypes. The story concerns a girl and her father living in a village right out of Celtic folklore, adjacent to a deep forest. The forest is home to wolves. The village is something of a military garrison, almost out of necessity. While an uneasy peace is kept most of the time, the village has an army trained expressly for the purpose of beating back the wolves when they periodically encroach on human territory.
As you might expect, these wolves are misunderstood. Some of them aren’t even fully wolves. When the main character, Robyn, ventures beyond where it’s safe, to prove to her stern father that she can do more than he believes her capable, she finds herself surrounded. However, there’s one other being that comes growling out of the forest to save her – a girl about her age. This girl, we find out, is a wolfwalker, a being that splits its time between wolf and human. If you think Robyn is going to befriend the wolfwalker and the wolves she walks with, you’re right. If you think her father is going to freak out because he has a heightened worry of his daughter dying after he lost his wife, you’re also right. If you think there’s a cartoonishly evil commander in the village who wants to wipe out all the wolves, you’re right again.
When you’re trying to concoct a fantasy world that requires the utmost focus of all your animators, it might be smart to stick to the basics in terms of the story. It’s also boring. There isn’t a story beat we haven’t seen in another movie, which would be okay if the characters had the dimension to involve us. Alas, they are as flat as the animation looks. Headstrong young girls and overprotective fathers don’t get more generic than this. Because most of what you’re seeing looks really good – those “rough draft” moments and the resulting flatness notwithstanding – you desperately want to connect with the characters. It is a fruitless effort.
Wolfwalkers is not a failure, but it is not memorable either. This is a nut Moore and company just can’t crack, though the problem this time is different to what it’s been in the past. Cartoon Saloon’s debut, The Secret of Kells, was a visual revelation, announcing that distinctive style mentioned earlier. But its story was opaque, too caught up in the vagaries of inaccessible lore. Song of the Sea made a move in the right direction but could not crack that invisible barrier between good and great.
Only The Breadwinner, the third feature that moved entirely out of Ireland to wartime Afghanistan, registered as much narratively as it did visually, and that film is basically a masterpiece. Nora Twomey, who co-directed Kells, has sole directing credit on that one, and maybe that’s something Cartoon Saloon needs to consider next time out. Wolfwalkers especially seems like a step backward compared to The Breadwinner.
Those who have lower standards than I apparently do, don’t fret. There’s a lot to like in Wolfwalkers, and some will find moments to love. Cartoon Saloon has been, and remains, the antidote to Hollywood animation, resembling more of a Ghibli in terms of its function in the animation landscape. But if Hayao Miyazaki had directed Wolfwalkers, which in another life he might have, he’d have made it a far more distinctive affair. Cartoon Saloon teases us by settling for good, when the ingredients are there to be great.