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Hunting Like the Wolf

Wolfwalkers-movie-review
The BFI London Film Festival

MOVIE REVIEW
Wolfwalkers (2020)

“Wolfwalkers” is “Avatar” for little girls: The colonized teach the colonizer how to appreciate the natural world so the colonizer can be the savior the colonized need. If that wasn’t bad enough, most of the smaller plot points are derivative from other animated movies – for example, the pet falcon is called Merlin, presumably as a shout-out to “The Sword in the Stone.” Even the wild red hair is a straight lift from “Brave.” But what isn’t forgivable is the movie’s sexism. While directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart were making this film, who cooked their dinners? This is an important question because the film expresses significant contempt for the daily chores of cleaning, washing and cooking young Robyn (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) must do instead of playing hunter in the woods. She doesn’t do those chores for her father Mr. Goodfellow (voiced by Sean Bean), but only when forced to by the Lord Protector (voiced by Simon McBurney). Robyn’s mother is absent, presumably dead, and the Goodfellows are part of the colonizing English force in the Kilkenny of 1650. But it’s an animated movie! There are cool-looking creatures in a gorgeous woodland to befriend!

One of the woodland creatures is Mebh, pronounced Maeve, (Eva Whittaker), who is by far the best thing in the film. She is a small yet ferocious creature, so argumentative she can pick a fight with herself, but also, like Princess Mononoke, control a pack of wild wolves with a crook of her finger. She is sparky and restless and an unstoppable force – except when the script, by Will Collins, requires her to play second fiddle to Robyn. Together the two girls decide to save the pack of wolves within the woods, since they cannot stop the woods from being chopped down by the Lord Protector. They do this knowing Robyn’s father’s life depends on being able to trap and kill the wolves. There is great magic involved in their attempts, which is beautifully animated in an angular hand-drawn style reminiscent of “Sleeping Beauty.” But the movie’s focus is how Mebh must devote her considerable energies into teaching Robyn how to use the not-to-be-spoiled magic instead of doing magic herself. Mother of God: Why is this movie encouraging little girls to teach others instead of doing for themselves? (“Song of the Sea,” also directed by Mr. Moore, was about how an unusual little girl must teach her older brother to stop being abusive to her in order to survive, and had for its villain an anxious grandmother. You’d think he’d choose a new row to hoe.)

Here the misguided villain is Robyn’s father, a hunter strangely never shown killing anything. The repeated phrase Mr. Goodfellow says as he forces Robyn away from hunting and into cleaning is that he must keep her safe. Not only is this demeaning, it also glorifies Robyn’s runaway rebellion. This is ludicrous in the context of a child heroine never shown eating, and an utterly bewildering dish to serve to children in modern Irish towns. Do we really want little kids to be taught they know better how to stay safe than the adults who look after them? Even if that is what kids want, why on earth did the filmmakers want them to sneer at the people who give them their dinner and a bath every evening? It takes hundreds of thousands of hours to make an animated film. Are none of the people putting in those hours mothers?

For a film with such clear gender roles and contempt for women’s work, it doesn’t even have the nerve to elevate the hunters over the gatherers. Mr. Goodfellow is patriarchally given the big finale instead of the more obvious, also not-to-be-spoiled choice, but even that is handled in a mealy-mouthed (and deeply problematic) way. Apropos of nothing, Maria Doyle Kennedy is also very good, and her singing voice adds a gorgeous wall of sound to a wild series of beautifully drawn visuals. But do not let this fool you. “Wolfwalkers” teaches kids to value the people who play in the mud instead of the people who clean up the mess those people make. It’s a reactionary, boring, sexist message in a very pretty package, nothing more.

Comments

I was lucky to watch this beautiful film as part of the London Film Festival and would love to defend both as Irish woman and a feminsit art historian. I find you have missed a lot of the sudtleties of this film especiallt the anti-colonial messages of the film as well the critique of the patriachy. I found the female characters had a lot of agency - Spoler Alert- see Robin stepping in front of cage and at the end when she helps her father win the day. she is not passive cahracter whatsoever in my point of view. As for your obession with domesticity- it ws a form of slavery in this world to be a servant. Robin wants to be a hunter- equal to the men in the story. I find quite puzzling too how the critic doesn't see the LGBTQ subtext of Robin and Maebh who is my favorite female character to emerge in animation in last twenty years outside of Studio Ghibli. Finally there is no mention of the ecological message of this film which I found very profound. As an Irish woman whose trees were all cut down by the British I find it rather galling to have an Irish film dismissed with such strong female characters dismissed by a British female critic. I think you will love at this review in years to come and cringe.

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