AFI FEST 2020: ‘Wolfwalkers’ ☆☆☆☆

Watching “Wolfwalkers” reminded me of a brief moment when I started a howling chorus. In my case, it was coyotes at a zoo. With my initial howl, there was one, then two and then quickly more began to join in the chorus. It was oddly satisfying and less nerve-wracking than being part of a chorus in concert. If you’ve ever had a dog that howls when sirens come near, you’ll know that there’s a sense of community, even among dogs who would never otherwise know or see each other. They might not be a pack, but the recognize some kind of bond. Dare we say: A moment of collectivism?  

The Cartoon Saloon (“The Secret of the Kells,” “Song of the Sea” and “The Breadwinner”) has teamed with the Luxembourg-based Melusine Productions (“The Bellflower Bunnies” and “Liberty’s Kids”) for another enchanting fantasy adventure. This outing takes us to Ireland where two girls meet as both struggle under the policies of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell.


Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) was a real person. He led England’s parliamentary armies during the English Civil War. Also called the Great Rebellion (1642-1651), the English Civil Wars were battles between supporters of Charles I (1600-1649) and his son Charles II (1630-1685) and Parliamentarians in England, Covenanters in Scotland and Confederates in Ireland. Charles was the second surviving son of King James I of England (James VI of Scotland), making him the grandson of Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary was executed by Queen Elizabeth (1587) whom James succeeded.

Elizabeth I was the daughter of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife and the reason that Henry forced the Anglican Church to break with the authority of the Pope in Rome. Henry, desperately wanting an male heir, could not get the pope to accept an annulment from Catherine of Aragon, his wife of 24 years who had given birth to a daughter, Mary. This is a different Mary, than the Queen of Scots. Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, did give him a son, Edward. The Protestant-raised Edward (r. 1547-1553) succeeded Henry VIII, then (after the Protestant Lady Jane Grey was briefly declared queen for nine days) came the Catholic Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, and finally Protestant-raised Elizabeth. 

Charles I was executed at White Hall (30 January 1649). Charles II was King of Scotland from 1649-1651, and King of England, Scotland and Ireland from the 1660 Restoration of the monarchy until his death in 1685. Although he married Catherine of Braganza in 1662, he had no surviving legitimate heirs, but he had many mistresses and children through them. Many of his illegitimate children were granted dukedoms and earldoms. Diana, Princess of Wales, is a descendant of Charles I through his sons the dukes of Grafton and Richmond.

This bit of history should give you a hint to Cromwell’s place in British history. Although he died of natural causes in 1658, and was buried with honors at Westminster Abbey, when King Charles II regained the throne, Cromwell’s corpse was dug up and beheaded (His was not the only posthumous execution). His son and successor, Richard Cromwell, only lasted as Lord Protector for 264 days. Richard died in his eighties.

Oliver Cromwell was a military dictator who was very religious, but not tolerant of Catholics. His policies toward Catholics has been characterized as genocidal. The siege of Kilkenny during the Irish Confederate Wars took place 22-28 March 1650, with Oliver Cromwell defeating the Royalists and Irish Confederates led by Sir Walter Butler. This was not a mad massacre. The citizens of Kilkenny were allowed to remain and be protected or leave the city. The Royalist officers and soldiers were allowed to leave the city with their baggage, horses and arms. Cromwell would go from Kilkenny on to Clonmel in May before returning to England.

The Film ‘Wolfwalkers

In “Wolfwalkers” Will Collins’ script suggests a different ending for Cromwell, yet this story is more than an Irish wishful thinking but is partially inspired by Studio Ghibli’s “Princess Mononoke.” The story is seen through the eyes of Robyn Goodfellowe (voiced by Honor Kneafsey), a young English girl who is learning hunting by crossbow from her widower father, Bill (Sean Bean). They’ve moved to Kilkenny which is under the rule of the humorless, autocratic Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney). Bill has been charged with trapping the wolf pack that hunts outside of the city’s walls.

Robyn is an outsider, targeted by a gang of local kids, who are also likely Catholics. Her father and Cromwell are also outsiders and although Cromwell stayed in power during his lifetime, he was still a colonizing power.

When Bill goes outside the city walls, Robyn, against his orders, follows with her pet hawk, Merlyn. During a wolf pack attack on a herd of sheep, Robyn accidentally wounds Merlyn. She attempts to retrieve her bird, but the wolves take the bird away instead. With the wolf attack, Bill is under increased pressure from Cromwell to slaughter the wolf pack. A local warns Bill and Robyn about the Wolfwalkers. Soon enough, Robyn not only meets them, but because she has been bitten by a member of this particular wolf pack, she herself becomes a Wolfwalker–a human who at night leaves her body in suspended animation and roams around in the form of a young female wolf.

Robyn meets Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whittaker), a Wolfwalker and now the nominal leader of the pack. Mebh has magical healing powers and no interest in living within the walls of Kilkenny. Mebh waits for her mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy) in her wolf form to return. Moll’s human body remains in eternal sleep until then. The pack easily outsmarts the traps set for them and their attacks on Kilkenny folk are because of the deforestation. Yet with Cromwell as the heavy, and a person who is not well liked in Ireland, as you can imagine, there will be a showdown between the wolves and Cromwell. 

Film Trope

Now, if you’re watching this with a collie cuddle, you can’t help but wonder: Where are the dogs? Where are the sheep dogs for herding? The Scots had the  collies and corgis, the Shetland Islands had their Shetland Sheepdogs and the Irish have the Irish Wolfhounds.  The ancestors of the Irish Wolfhounds, large Greyhound-like dogs called faoil date back to Roman times. Roman statesman Quintus Aurelius Symmachus thanks his brother for the gift of seven Irish holds in 391. The Irish Collie may be the oldest Irish dog breed. It was bred to herd sheep and cattle in the 6th Century for herding sheep and cattle. 

And yet, the lack of dogs within a civilization is not just a film trope, but also one that exists in many fairytales. If the prince in “Cinderella” had hounds, could they have helped in tracking down the missing miss from the scent of her shoe? If the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk” had a dog, would his home have been better protected? 


If you can ignore that dog-angle, especially where sheep are involved, then the Cartoon Saloon have proven once again that 2D can be just as magical as CGI. Under the direction of Tomm Moore (“Song of the Sea” and “The Secret of Kells”) and Ross Stewart (“The Secret of the Kells” as art director and “Song of the Sea” for concept art), this is a lovely reminder of the importance of native predators and that colonialism has a long history as does deforestation. And for humans and wolves, what is central to survival is a cohesive family unit. On a more global level, survival may require recognition of our place in nature, a sense of collectivism where we are not enemies, but allies across ethnic groups, national borders and even across species. 

“Wolfwalkers” opened to a limited release on 13 November 2020. It was part of the AFI FEST 2020 at Home edition. On 11 December 2020, “Wolfwalkers” will premiere online through Apple TV+ .


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