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Mebh and Robyn in Wolfwalkers. Image: GKIDS

History, Environmentalism and Folklore in Wolfwalkers

Even on the surface, it’s easy to tell that Wolfwalkers isn’t an average kids movie. The hand-sketched artwork is just too highbrow for that. The first time I noticed this film and its artwork was when I was walking past a bus shelter ad promoting the animated feature. It was at a bus stop in Venice (California – not Italy, sadly) that I happen to walk past often. Finally, after catching my eye many times over the course of several weeks, I booted up Apple TV+ and started to watch the film. Sure enough, Wolfwalkers turned out to be a profound story, illuminating themes rooted in lost history, environmental consciousness, and cultural traditions that were long forgotten.

Robyn Goodfellowe catching onto the Wolfwalkers. Image: GKIDS

What is the Plot of Wolfwalkers?

In a time of superstition and magic, a young apprentice hunter, Robyn Goodfellowe, journeys to Ireland with her father to wipe out the last wolf pack. While exploring the forbidden lands outside the city walls, Robyn befriends a free-spirited girl, Mebh, a member of a mysterious tribe rumored to have the ability to transform into wolves by night. As they search for Mebh’s missing mother, Robyn uncovers a secret that draws her further into the enchanted world of the Wolfwalkers, and risks turning into the very thing her father is tasked to destroy.

The film is directed by two-time Academy Award nominated Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea) and Ross Stewart, and written by Will Collins (Song of the Sea). The film premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, and is the latest film from the three-time Academy Award nominated studio Cartoon Saloon.

Inspired Artwork

Before we get into the social themes in Wolfwalkers, I want to acknowledge the rich creative direction throughout this film. The artwork was intended to highlight contrasting positions in place and society, and the hand-drawn environments and characters illustrate this, both literally and figuratively, while borrowing inspiration from the art of that period. In The Hollywood Reporter, Ross Stewart says:

“We referenced 17th century woodcuts from the time, which were very oppressed, angular and quite rough and almost savage… Thankfully, we had printmakers here in the studio that would help us achieve that look, and then to contrast with that, the look of the forest had to be as free and energetic and immersive and just colorful and wild as possible. We had a lot of very sketchy lines and then very loose coloring underneath like watercolor painting, just almost impressionistic.”

The artwork was also used as a tool to further accentuate the unique traits of each of the characters.

“Robyn is quite angular, and she almost is made up of segmented pieces. There are a lot of straight lines. There are a lot of divisions within her because she comes from that place of Cromwell society. Mebh, in contrast, is all curves, is all kinds of fancy shapes, is very stocky, and it shows how wild and instinctive she is.”

Reminders of History

Ever heard of Oliver Cromwell, or the Cromwellian war in Ireland? Oliver Cromwell was a small landowner from Cambridgeshire who was put in charge of the armies sent to war against Ireland in 1649. He’s a controversial figure, sometimes referred to as “Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland,” yet other times characterized as a cruel and harsh dictator. Wolfwalkers has its own take on The Lord Protector, bringing him into the story as a reminder of past history, and as a reflection of current events. Moore says:

“We started talking about the polarization we still live with to some extent today in Ireland and that we see all over the world, where people who have a lot in common and have everything to fight for together tend to lose empathy because of authoritarian rulers and tradition teaching them the ‘other’ are to be feared.”

Robyn Goodfellowe hunting for wolves in the forest. Image: GKIDS

Advocating for Environmentalism

A by-product of Cromwell’s action in Ireland was a huge amount of environmental destruction. This comes to light as the primary plot thread in Wolfwalkers, which is centered around the clearing of the forests, and the elimination of the surrounding wolf packs, as dictated by The Lord Protector. To be clear, this isn’t fiction – this actually happened. In the 1600s, the Cromwellian forces were ordered to cut down forests because that’s where the rebels and wolves would hide.

When the protagonist Robyn befriends Mebh, a Wolfwalker, their friendship becomes a metaphor for our relationship with the environment. Tragically, Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland is said to have contributed to the extinction of the country’s wolves — an impact that would continue to have a ripple effect on the global environment, hundreds of years later.

Mebh and Robyn meeting each other in wolf form. Image: GKIDS

Revitalizing Culture and Folklore

In Ireland, when the wolves became extinct, a lot of Irish folklore was lost with that species. Some of this includes stories of people who transformed into wolves when they fell asleep. Other aspects include an older Irish culture with a strong sense of matriarchy, and an emphasis on powerful women leaders who were connected to nature. These values come to life through the characterization of Meb’s mother, Moll, and the role that she plays in the Wolfwalker tribe.

Moll, Mebh, and Robyn sharing a moment. Image: GKIDS

What I admire most about this film is the diverse range of deep, complex themes that it introduces to children along with their parents. A 10-year-old may have no idea that The Lord Protector was a real, historical figure, giving parents an opportunity to talk about the lessons learned from that time. The film also provides opportunities to discuss themes such as polarization, personal values, and our relationship with nature.

Animated films often fall into the trap of becoming overly simple, uninteresting, and uninspiring. Wolfwalkers dodges that trap entirely by packaging nuanced topics in a compelling and accessible way. By doing this, the film manages to create opportunities for kids to have conversations that they otherwise wouldn’t have, whether that be with their parents, their teachers, or even each other. It’s easy to give the next generation a hard time for being so “woke,” but honestly, we need it. I’m here for it.

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