★★★★☆

Adding yet another jewel to their burgeoning crown, Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon’s latest film, Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s Wolfwalkers, is a triumphant blend of mythology and history, of soaring imagination and cruel reality.

It is the enchanting adventure story of an unlikely friendship between two girls. They are not so much from different sides of the tracks, but their conflicting starts in life, provenance and points of view are overcome by a shared belief in right and wrong, and the ability – unlike the adult world – to look past first impressions and baseless preconceptions. With the same depth, wit, sincerity and passion of the studio’s former works, Wolfwalkers takes place in their hometown of Kilkenny many years ago. It is 1650 and the people of the growing settlement live in fear of the wolves who inhabit the nearby forest.

Yet within the confines of the city walls, they are kept under the heel of the tyrannical Lord Protector. Though never addressed directly as such, it is clear that this dastardly figure is Cromwellian in all but name; his brutal mission to wipe out the woodland’s beasts a thin disguise for his desire to rid the townsfolk of their – in his view – “paganism”. Submitting the downtrodden, occupied population to his vision of religious will and authority, the colonial metaphors are there to be drawn.

But through the eyes of Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) and Mebh (Eva Whittaker) it is simply a story of good and evil, of questioning authority and following your heart. And this is where Wolfwalkers really excels. Like Cartoon Saloon’s former films – The Breadwinner, Song of the Sea, The Secret of Kells – and in the same vein as the best of Disney-Pixar, the scripting and imagery of their latest operates on a number of rounded, well-articulated levels. Parents and children who see it together (you really should) will have much to discuss during and afterwards.

With this in mind, it is clear from the off that the rebellious, but disciplined Robyn is unlikely to follow all that her father, Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean), tells her to do. They have just moved to Ireland from England, and he must prove his worth to the Lord Protector whilst doing what’s right by his daughter. Whip smart, cunning and curious, Robyn longs to be a renowned wolf hunter, too. However, sneaking after him (with pet hawk, Merlin) as Bill ventures into the forest to lay traps, with bow and arrow in hand, she is disarmed and saved by flame-haired force of nature, Mebh.

Pitting their wits and talents against one another, it is not long before a mutual respect and kinship blossoms. And upon learning that Mebh is part-girl, part-wolf, the mysterious adventure and shared voyage of discovery begins in earnest for the new friends. But so does the menace of the blinkered adult world. What follows is as magical and exhilarating to behold as it is profoundly moving. Achieved once again through stunning picture book animation, each and every frame of Wolfwalkers could be considered a work of art in its own right: the rich, autumnal oranges and reds feel particularly vivid at this time of year, and the vibrancy of the natural idyll – both dangerous and enchanting – is contrasted with the squared, angular grey and blue hues of the smelly, oppressive town.

Particularly impressive are the illustrators’ rendering of eyes – be they human or lupine – as this, along with the tremendous vocal work of the actors (Kneafsey and Whittaker deserve special credit), is where Wolfwalkers really finds its expression. Its themes and message are told with such honesty and fervour that it neither downplays them for its younger target audience, nor simplifies them to the point that adults watching along won’t be thoroughly engaged. Exciting, thought-provoking and visually striking, it is everything an animation can and should be for viewers young and old.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63