Producers: Paul Young, Nora Twomey, Tomm Moore and Stéphan Roelants   Directors: Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart   Screenplay: Will Collins   Cast: Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney, Tommy Tiernan, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Jon Kenny, John Morton, Nora Twomey,Oliver McGrath, Paul Young and Niamh Moyles   Distributor:  GKIDS and Apple +

Grade: A-

Wolves are certainly a popular commodity onscreen at the moment, what with the recent “100% Wolf” and this week’s “Hunter Hunter,” but this visually extraordinary film from Tomm Moore’s Irish Cartoon Saloon, which previously brought us two marvelously beautiful, offbeat animated pictures, “The Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea,” offers a take on them that differs from anything seen before. 

The fantastical story, written by Will Collins, draws on some rewritten history and Celtic folklore.  It’s set in the mid-seventeenth century, when the English Lord Protector, the fanatical Oliver Cromwell (voiced by Simon McBurney), was subjugating Ireland to his dogmatic will.  Determined to wipe out both popery and paganism, he finds himself stymied in Kilkenny by a mystical power in the forest near the town—a pack of wolves led by Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whittaker), a feral girl who is a wolfwalker—a human who transforms into a wolf while her body sleeps, and is possessed of extraordinary healing powers.  Mebh is awaiting the return of her mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy), who left in her wolf form to seek a new home but whose human body remains asleep in the cave while her spirit remains absent, perhaps unable for some reason to make her way back.       

Cromwell decides that the wolf pack must be exterminated at all costs, and hands the assignment to his master hunter Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean), whose daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) is a puckish tomboy who wants to follow in her father’s footsteps rather than perform the scullery duties assigned her.  So she goes off to the forest accompanied by her faithful pet, a bird called Merlin, and encounters Mebh, with whom she ultimately bonds in sisterly comradeship—and in nature, since before long she has become a wolfwalker too, despite her father’s duty to annihilate the pack.

Eventually the Lord Protector, furious over Bill’s incompetence, undertakes to destroy the wolves himself and marches out of Kilkenny with his army, intent on burning down the forest entirely and all the animals with it.  Meanwhile Robyn has discovered that he has been holding Moll’s spirit captive in his dungeon, and not only frees her but returns to the forest to stand with the wolves against the Protector’s assault.  In the event Bill will have to decide which side he stands on.

Collins has had to toy with the historical record in crafting his narrative, but the result is so satisfying that it would be churlish to complain.  In terms of plot “Wolfwalkers” is as cunning as its predecessors were, and will engage both children and adults.

But what sets the film apart, of course, is the wondrous animation, which, as was the case with Cartoon Saloon’s previous films, represents the continuing irresistibility of hand-drawn 2D work even as the industry has by and large embraced computer-dominated artwork. 

That isn’t to say that all old-fashioned animation is as eye-catching as this, or even that Moore doesn’t make use of computer-assisted methods to enhance the visuals.  But the imagination and inventiveness of what’s on display here are truly remarkable.  Of particular note is the visual differentiation between the human and wolf worlds, with the former given an angular look reminiscent of darkly colored woodblock images, while the latter is all swirling masses of vibrancy and shimmering luster.  Even the character drawing is affected, with the Protector and his soldiers bearing  square-like frames while the wolves, and especially the wolfwalkers, have the supple appearance of splashes of watercolor.  The backgrounds are similarly rendered in contrasting styles.  And while the voice work isn’t equally distinctive, it’s uniformly excellent, though one might appreciate the subtitles in the streaming version. 

Obviously one must credit the technical crew—not merely the small army of animators but directors Moore and Ross Stewart, who also served as art directors and production designers along with Maria Pareja, as well as editors Richard Cody, Darren Holmes and Darragh Byrne.  There’s also a lovely Celtic-inflected but subtle music score by  Bruno Coulais and Kila, as well as occasional songs featuring Aurora, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Sophia Coulais and Camille Joutard. 

This is yet another masterful visual achievement from Cartoon Saloon, as well as a simply enchanting story, beautifully told.