Tuesday 10 November 2020

Pushing the boundaries: "WolfWalkers"

Quietly, unflashily, the Irish animation house Cartoon Saloon has positioned itself as the leading European rival to Pixar and Laika in the West and Studio Ghibli in the East. They've achieved this by retelling local legends without apparent commercial compromise - revisiting the writing of the medieval Book of Kells for 2009's The Book of Kells and the selkie myth in 2014's Song of the Sea, both Oscar-nominated - and by going back to basics, employing the kind of hand-drawn animation some feared microprocessors might have done for. (Though you'd be naive to think there wasn't software involved somewhere along the CS production line.) WolfWalkers is - as its title suggests - this studio's lycanthrope movie, but it also gets its claws into Irish colonial history: it's set in the 17th century, with Ireland under British rule, and its heroine Robyn (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) is the daughter of a British officer (Sean Bean), who warns his charge not to venture beyond Kilkenny's city walls, lest she encounter the fearsome pack of wolves who've been terrifying the locals. Inevitably, she does; even more inevitably, she finds she has less to fear out there than her keepers would have her believe. Cartoon Saloon would have been assembling this story and these images as the Brexit debate came and went: more so than Aardman's comparable but larkier Early Man, WolfWalkers is a film about borders and boundary crossing, and the relations we keep with our immediate neighbours. It's also plainly the work of a studio growing vastly more confident about telling their own stories.

Pixar had that brash confidence - the confidence that allows creatives to take narrative risks and technological leaps - baked into their business model from the off. (It helps when a multinational like Disney has faith in you, and seed money to invest.) For the decade and a half they've been operational, Cartoon Saloon have been content to do the simple stuff well, in as much as there is ever simple stuff in animation. Again here, their backgrounds have the look of classic picturebooks, while their flat, frontal compositions recall those stitched into ancient tapestries. It could appear rudimentary in the Year of Our Lord 2020, were there not so much skill and artistry on display. Previous CS productions have lingered in the mind as colours: the verdant, emerald greens of Kells, the suitably cerulean blues of Sea. WolfWalkers makes bold gestures with light, which is why it presents as more dynamic to look at. The eye is first caught, then rapt by a sunbeam piercing a forest clearing, the flicker of the candle illuminating the home Robyn shares with her father, distinctly Turner-like sunsets, the golden swirls that indicate some shapeshifting magic is in the air. (Cartoon Saloon love a swirl: it's an element that prevents their frames from ever getting too square.) Risks are taken with framing, too. There are transitions where we see black-and-white backgrounds suddenly flood with the green-and-gold of the finished article; in moments of high drama, the image occasionally switches to what's almost a storyboard view, with no alienation or loss of impact. Directors Tomm Moore (who directed Kells and Sea) and Ross Stewart (an art director on Kells) show their working - what goes into these frames to make them complete - and only add to the spell they're casting.

A simple story - two girls from different cultures find their growing friendship tested by external circumstances - is itself layered up by expert characterisation. Robyn looks to be so much modelled on current Irish postergirl Saoirse Ronan (blonde hair, big blue eyes) that it might have been actionable if the character wasn't also a repository of full-hearted, open-minded virtue; visually, there's a lovely contrast with her woodland equivalent Mebh (pronounced Maeve, voiced by Eva Whittaker), a feral Powerpuff Girl with leaves forever in her hair. There's nuance, too. Robyn's father is drawn as such a towering hulk it makes sense to have him voiced by Sean Bean, but he's never as tyrannical as he might have been; instead, Moore and Stewart show us an Englishman desperate to curry favour with his boss, the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney, savouring the one truly villainous role), while maintaining law and order and protecting his child. (Here is that compassionate conservatism people talk about.) The very opposite of that dashed-off digimation that flooded multiplexes when they reopened this summer, WolfWalkers operates by stealth, offering few of those hectic setpieces lesser animators employ as distraction, and thereby allowing its story, relationships and style to creep up on the viewer. For a long while, I wondered why Mebh's hair was translucent in some shots, and why certain faces and places had been rendered in such sketchy pencil strokes. Yet the narrative foundations are so strong that Moore and Stewart are free to doodle and experiment on top of them, and the wildness of these specific flourishes meshes perfectly with the story being told. WolfWalkers is Cartoon Saloon's most defiant film - a statement of who they are and the values they represent, an artful feck-off to those who would tame or colonise them - and for that reason their strongest yet, a fable possessed of both beauty and bite.

WolfWalkers screens tomorrow and Thursday at the Perth Playhouse; it debuts on Apple TV on December 11. 

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