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Irish fable celebrates nature, friendship


By Karen Butler

The cast and filmmakers of the visually stunning and emotionally rich “Wolfwalkers” say they hope audiences see their new animated adventure as a celebration of nature, friendship and female empowerment.

Now streaming on Apple TV+, the fable is set in 1650 Ireland and follows English youngster Robyn as she settles in Kilkenny with her father, a hunter tasked with slaying the wolf pack menacing a village ruled by a lord protector loosely based on Oliver Cromwell.

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Robyn’s life changes forever when she meets Mebh, a wild child with a mystical talent for healing others and transforming herself into a wolf.

Leading the film’s voice ensemble are Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney and Tommy Tiernan. The latest endeavor from Tomm Moore, director of The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, features music by Bruno Coulais and Kila.

“There are two main themes and they are quite intertwined,” Moore told the Irish Echo in a recent Zoom interview about “Wolfwalkers.”

“We lose so much when we lose a species and we are living through species extinction and we’re going to have to be able to see past our differences to work together to save the ecosystem that we all rely on,” Moore added.

“So, when you see that Robyn and Mebh -- even though they are from warring factions, two completely opposite sides in a very polarized society -- I think it speaks to today’s world and the fact that they are able to be friends across that divide and see the world from the other’s point of view. That’s what I hope. I hope young people see that and understand that it is possible to be friends with the ‘other.’”

During the course of production on “Wolfwalkers,” real-life wildfires raged in Australia, the Amazon and the West Coast of the United States.

As a result, the destruction of the woods in order to farm and build up the town in the film appear almost prescient.

“It seemed closer and closer to modern life than we realized,” Moore observed.

“I was just thinking of when [climate activist] Greta Thunberg came out and suddenly she became a hero for the left and a figure of hatred for the right and it’s just mind-boggling,” co-director Ross Stewart said.

“Here’s a young teenager that wants to help save the planet and, suddenly, anybody who supports this politician has to hate her,” Stewart continued. “It’s exactly like what’s going on in ‘Wolfwalkers.’ What you are being told by these people in positions of power is actually so against the very notion of trying to live in harmony.”

It was important to the filmmakers to have strong female characters driving the story of “Wolfwalkers.”

“This colonization is very patriarchal. It’s led by men, and the women have no agency in this society,” Stewart said.

“In contrast to that, there is this ancient, pagan Irish society where there were strong queens, strong healer women, strong wise women. There were pirate queens,” he noted.

“It made much more sense for Robyn to be a girl kept under the cuffs of a Puritan ruler who meets a girl who has grown up in this matriarchal society where women are queens and leaders of a pack or wolves and have agency, have freedom. It’s the nature of the conflict of the story.”

Kneafsey landed the role after her self-taped audition caught the filmmakers’ eyes.

She and Whittaker recorded their dialogue together having only glimpsed a few sketches of what their characters would look like.

“It’s so beautifully done and it looks incredible. We only saw a few storyboards or a few pictures, so to now see the final thing, I just couldn’t believe it,” Kneafsey said in a separate Zoom chat with Whittaker and the Echo.

The film was so transporting that the young actress was able to enjoy the finished project as a fan.

“Because it is a fantasy, action-adventure, you do get drawn into it and you kind of forget it is even you,” she marveled.

So, what first appealed to Kneafsey about working on the movie?

“I loved that it was two strong girls and they came together through their differences, so I think that was a lovely part of the story that really stood out to me,” Kneafsey said.

She described Robyn as “brave,” emphasizing, “She really would do anything.”

“I would love to say that I am always up for a challenge and will try to push myself,” Kneafsey said about how she is like her character.

She praised Moore and Stewart for guiding her and her co-star through the cinematic process.

“They really helped us get into character and they did let us do a few bits on our own and really interpret it in our own way and then, obviously, give their input for each scene, as well,” she said.

Whittaker loved that the film is about respecting nature and wildlife.

“It really shows that you should speak up and stand up for what you believe in,” she added.

To her, Mebh was cute, “really cool” and a blast to play.

“I would be kind of energetic and a bubbly sort of person and that’s something that Mebh is, but I think, with Mebh, because she has grown up in the wild and she has no inhibitions, everything is just a bit bigger. So, some traits would be kind of like mine, but 10 times bigger,” Whittaker said.

Whittaker studied wolf videos and rehearsed at length before going into the recording studio to tape her speech, both human and canine.

“When we went in to record it, they were all my own sounds and my own howls and growls,” she said. “I was just so proud to be a part of it.”