The Art of Wolfwalkers (2020)

Written by Catherine Harlow

Edited by Tiffany Chan

Wolfwalkers (2020) was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2021 Academy  and is director Tom Moore’s third film focusing on Irish folklore.  His previous Irish folklore films are The Secret of the Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014).  While this year’s Oscar nominees were touching and imaginative in their own ways, I would have given Wolfwalkers the Oscar because of how incredible the art was and how successful it was at establishing the narrative.

Wolfwalkers took full advantage of the animated medium to enhance the storytelling.  The film is hand-drawn in a style that moves between an illustrative style reminiscent of children’s books and a more fluid, almost sketch style.  The film follows Robyn Goodfellowe, a young girl who wishes to be a hunter just like her father.  Her father is in charge of eradicating the wolves in the forest around Kilkenny, Ireland so that the town can cut down the forest to expand its pastures.  Robyn’s adventures begin after she secretly follows her father into the forest and meets a mysterious, wild girl named Mebh.  Visually, Robyn and Mebh’s worlds follow different rules that silently, yet powerfully, demonstrate how different their town and forest homes are from each other.

The first frames establish that Mebh’s forest and the town Robyn has just moved to are very drastic in their differences, and immediately set up how the town and the forest will be at odds with each other in the film.  The forest is curvilinear and has a rich palette of colors, though the majority of the colors include greens, reds, oranges, and yellows.  The lighting and atmosphere is soft and inviting.  The first frame of the town draws a stark contrast.  It is rectilinear with a muted color palette dominated by greys, browns, and blues.  The town is covered with a dingy fog pierced by bright red and white flames from torches.  During the remainder of the opening credits, the film shows the audience animals coming out of their holes and walking around in the wreckage of cut trees, which shows from the beginning how the animals are being pushed out by the destruction of their home.

The first frame of Wolfwalkers and the first glimpse of the forest
The first view of the town

As the film progresses, other details in how the town and the forest are drawn further contribute to their visual, and thus narrative, distinctions.  The art style of the town is inspired by woodblock printing, so the line-work and much of the texture in the town is clean, tight lines with sharp angles and edges.  Much of the color is also applied like a woodblock print, so the lights and shadows are built up in layers of flat colors with clear, straight edges.  The shapes that comprise the town are also dominated by angular rectangles and triangles.  The art style of the forest, however, is much looser and softer.  The line-work and texture of the forest is primarily drawn with pencil and charcoal and is full of curving, rounded, and undulating shapes.  Most of the color is applied with soft washes of watercolor, so there are practically no harsh edges to be found anywhere in the forest.

Robyn in her home in the town. The lines and colors are applied like wood block printing, giving a flat effect with clear edges.
Mebh and Robyn sitting in the forest. The lines are organic, rounded and flowing, while the color is applied with soft washes of watercolor.

The forest and the town are even drawn with different artistic perspectives, which further help to establish the forest and town as two distinct worlds.  The forest is drawn with a realistic atmospheric perspective, while the town does not exactly adhere to the usual rules of perspective that art in the West has typically employed since the Renaissance.  Rather, the town is drawn in a very flat perspective, so there’s little sense of depth and dimension.  I think this is very cleverly done to reflect how close-minded the town and its inhabitants and leaders are to the unknown and alternate ways of life.

The town has a flattened perspective

The forest has an atmospheric perspective

These visual differences between the town and the forest to enhance the narrative show the filmmakers put so much care and thought into every artistic decision in every frame, with highly effective and visually stunning results.  The visual guidelines of the town and the forest I have discussed in this article scratch the surface of the many clever, beautiful, compelling artistic choices and details in the entire film.  There are sequences where the art style changes completely from what I have described here, including my favorite scene in the movie.  I will not discuss it here so as to not spoil the story, but the change in art style is done for a specific narrative purpose and it was so impactful and stunning that I had to immediately watch the scene again.  Wolfwalkers expertly takes advantage of its hand-drawn animated medium to enrich the story, exemplifying the freedom hand-drawn animation has to be uniquely powerful and creative.

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