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Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon started making movies on a small scale with 2009’s The Secret of Kells, a gorgeously illustrated fable inspired by Irish folklore, and the company has grown in size and reputation over the course of its first three features, all of which were nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. Wolfwalkers is Cartoon Saloon’s most ambitious and accomplished project yet, a return to Irish mythology after 2017’s politically aware Afghanistan-set The Breadwinner. There’s social commentary here, too, although it’s more subdued, and the focus is on a family-friendly story about friendship and self-confidence.

Set in 17th-century Kilkenny, Ireland, Wolfwalkers follows young girl Robyn Goodfellowe (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) as she explores the vast woods outside the walled town, despite the admonitions of her father Bill (Sean Bean). Bill has been sent from England to Ireland by Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney), the Lord Protector who rules Great Britain with an iron fist, with the mission of killing or driving away the wolves that inhabit the Kilkenny forest, so that the trees can be cut down and the farmland expanded. Local legend tells of people known as Wolfwalkers, shape-shifters who can command packs of wolves and magically heal wounds, but Bill dismisses those stories as nonsense.

Sneaking out against her father’s explicit orders, Robyn encounters an actual Wolfwalker, a girl named Mebh (Eva Whittaker) who is about Robyn’s age, and who lives in the woods with her mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy), also a Wolfwalker. The Wolfwalkers are similar to werewolves, in that they take both human and wolf forms. When a Wolfwalker’s human form sleeps, their spirit leaves their body and walks in the form of a wolf. Also like werewolves, Wolfwalkers can transform other humans with a bite, as Robyn learns unexpectedly.

After bonding with Mebh, Robyn is determined to save the wolves and convince her father to stop his hunt, but there are larger forces aligned against her. With danger closing in on the wolves and the Wolfwalkers, the movie steadily builds tension while also making time for heartfelt emotional moments, between Robyn and Mebh and between Robyn and her father. The two girls are sweet and boisterous, and their enthusiasm is endearing. The relationships are easy to grasp but not simplistic, with nuances in the conflicts among the main characters.

As with all Cartoon Saloon movies, Wolfwalkers is beautiful to look at, created with hand-drawn animation that resembles storybook illustrations, a combination of flat, almost abstract backgrounds and dynamic, fluid character work. There’s more physical dimension to the animation here than in any previous Cartoon Saloon film, without losing the handmade quality that makes the studio’s work so distinctive. Both the story and the visuals are steeped in Irish and Celtic culture, and director Tomm Moore (here joined by co-director Ross Stewart) has billed this as the final installment in his trilogy of Irish folklore films, after The Secret of Kells and 2014’s Song of the Sea.

If Moore is closing the book on Irish mythology, he’s ended on a high note, with a story that’s suspenseful and heartwarming, while carrying clear but not heavy-handed messages about the importance of nature and the dangers of authoritarianism. There are echoes of Pixar’s Brave and Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke here, but Wolfwalkers is wholly unique, retaining the refreshingly artisanal quality of Cartoon Saloon’s work while delivering a fantasy story every bit as grand as anything created by a major studio.

3.5 stars (out of 5)

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