For clear evidence of the American imperialism inherent in the Oscars, look no further than the Best Animated Feature category; a catalogue of sub-par Pixar efforts beating masterpieces from the likes of Studio Ghibli and its Irish equivalent, Cartoon Saloon (AKA Studi O’Ghibli).
That Wolfwalkers should fall prey to this cultural jingoism is ironic given its subject matter: Kilkenny is under the oppressive yoke of Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney), who orders wolf hunter Bill (Sean Bean) to destroy the forest home of a wolf pack. Bill’s daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) is desperate to help him until she befriends “wolfwalker” Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a girl by day and wolf by night.
The ensuing fantasy adventure loosely mirrors Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, but skewed slightly younger. And a lot more Irish. The gun-toting Cromwell is on a mission from god to “tame this wild land.” Christianity here is as tyrannical and controlling as Islam was in Saloon’s powerful The Breadwinner. At the core of these fundamentalist ideologies lies a fear of girls with freewill. Like The Breadwinner‘s Parvana, Robyn stands up to Cromwell and his patriarchal paw patrol.
This grounding in political reality makes it darker and more threatening than Song of the Sea, matching that film’s geometric geography if not its twinkling psychedelia. The hand-drawn animation, storybook-style screen wipes and lovely Celtic score pull you into the movie’s magical, subversive world and heartfelt story of man vs nature. Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart contrast the occupied town’s flatness with the translucent autumnal textures of the woods, painting the themes of nature, colonialism and ostracism in beautiful watercolour.
Where Soul was purely literal and lacking in story, Wolfwalkers tells a classic tale awash with metaphor. Pixar may have won the Oscar, but Saloon has the soul.