Today at Looking Closer, I welcome a new guest reviewer, Micah Rickard.

I met Micah at a very special occasion a few years back — the awarding of the Denise Levertov Award by Image journal to the poet Marilyn Nelson. Talking about art, faith, and criticism during the reception there, we knew right away that we were kindred spirits. Then, he joined my Glen Workshop film seminar this summer and contributed to our conversations about a wide variety of films with expertise and wisdom. When he showed me a sample of his writing about film, I was eager to introduce him to you.

Robyn Goodfellowe is feisty, but her courage will take a hard hit when she runs into dangerous wolves and Mebh, a girl who runs with them. [Image from GKids trailer.]

Since I haven’t published a formal review of Wolfwalkers in writing here — I’ve published two special podcast episodes instead, including a conversation with Tomm Moore, who co-directed the film with Ross Stewart — I’m glad to share some of Rickard’s reflections on the film here.

So, without further ado, here is Micah Rickard:

Internal change is one of the trickiest things to express in movies.

When movies do try to convey nebulous concepts like inner transformation, they often turn to plot-based mechanics — a recent adept example being Inside Out’s use of emotions as characters to express the inner life of a young girl. Wolfwalkers, the new animated film from Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea), carves a markedly different path, eliding exposition and crafting a unique visual language to express its emotional and spiritual depths.

Wolfwalkers follows Robyn Goodfellowe, who has recently moved to Kilkenny with her father, Bill. Bill’s help has been enlisted by the Lord Protector, the English-appointed ruler of the town, whose aim is to tame the surrounding forest and, likewise, the Irish people. The Lord Protector’s rule — and religion — is law and order; anything wild is anathema and accursed. Bill is commanded to eradicate the wolves in the forest, and Robyn, eager to hunt, delves into the forest against her father’s wishes. There she encounters Mebh, a Wolfwalker: a human who can communicate with the wolves and who takes the form of a wolf when asleep.

The Christianity of Kilkenny’s Lord Protector (right) in this film is a religion of coercive force that does harm to people and nature (wolves included). [Image from GKids trailer.]
This encounter powerfully challenges Robyn’s understanding of the world. The simplistic distinctions of innocent people and evil wolves, of morally ordered society and wild, wicked forest are uprooted. As she and Mebh become friends, Robyn must learn to bring both sides into harmony. Robyn’s encounter with the unexpected leads to a sudden transformation and a new form of being, which then guides her to unique growth and maturity.

To fully communicate these aspects, directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart and animators make use of shifting visual styles, finding a new, wordless language of expression. It is a language of both revelation and invitation, bringing unstated, inner truths out through artistry and inviting the audience inward to share these moments with Robyn and Mebh.

As they did in The Secret of Kells, Cartoon Saloon animators emphasize a contrast between the order of civilization and the wildness of nature. [Image from GKids trailer.]
This begins with the setting itself. The town of Kilkenny is a place of order. It carves a sharp rectangle in the landscape, all gridded streets and harsh, angular houses cast in somber grays and purples. In contrast, the forest is awash in soft light that illuminates winding paths and circular groves. What’s more, the flourishing color presses against any rigidity, even escaping the lines of the objects. The green of the trees reaches beyond its border into the sky, and piles of leaves project reddish hues greater than the leaves themselves.

This style distinguishes the forest as a liminal space: a space where the tangible and ambiguous merge, where the spiritual collides with the physical world. It is mystical, beautiful, and dangerous all at once, a wild place where one may find deep magic but may lose themselves in the process. These spaces can also be seen as echoes of encounters found in the Bible — from Mount Horeb to the Holy of Holies — places where God dwelt among his people in specific and mysterious ways. Through the contrasting style, Wolfwalkers creates a visual language of wonder, readying the audience for encounter — an encounter that brings its own sense of transformation.

After being bitten by Mebh, Robyn discovers that she herself has become a Wolfwalker. This new way of being comes with freeing abilities and unexpected dangers, as the townspeople — and even her father — try to kill this perceived threat.

The experience of the wolfwalkers is represented with a sensual stylistic shift. [Image from GKids trailer.]
But how to convey what it’s like to be transformed? Just as with any language, different forms are needed to communicate different concepts. In the scenes where the lupine Robyn runs through the forest, far faster and freer than she could in human form, the movie occasionally shifts to her point of view. The landscape darkens, leaving people and animals brightly lit, a trail of scent behind them as they move. As she runs, the background movement staggers a bit, the frames jittery, conveying the strangeness of her speed.

Again, the movie not only reveals that something is different about Robyn, but also brings us into feeling her transformation. We see with her new sight, we feel the foreign, free sense of movement she now has. We, along with her, experience the world around us differently. And here, too, we find spiritual echoes, even if distant. For we ourselves know what it is to be transformed by an encounter with a mysterious Other, to find that we are suddenly something new, no longer our old selves. And, like Robyn, we are called to learn how to put on the new self, to live in this transformed state.

One of the most interesting choices in the movie is to leave penciled arcs on many of the character drawings. The circles, remnants of early sketches, give a sense that these characters are not yet finished. It provides a visual cue to the journey of transformation that these characters are on. They are not so roughly sketched as to be vague — we still recognize and know them — but we feel that there’s still growth remaining for them.

Works-in-progress? Images often preserve some of the sketchbook qualities that brought them to life. [Image from GKids trailer.]
This is one of the most brilliant methods of expression in the movie: the animators convey maturation without turning to heavy handed explanation. We understand that Robyn, Mebh, and Bill are all still in the process of growth. And in them, if we search, we see a reflection of our own call to sanctification. In Christ, we are made new creations, saved by his generous grace. Yet we are still called to grow in right living, to increasingly live out this new, redeemed way of being. In the already but not yet, we ourselves bear the “sketch works” of what we will become.

Robyn’s story is not an explicitly Christian journey, but it is an expressly spiritual one. If we are attuned to its language, we can find much that is edifying within. While the Lord Protector is the most direct representative of religion, he clearly wields his Christianity for the aim of dominance and earthly power — a corrupted belief. In contrast, Wolfwalkers creates a unique, visual language to express Robyn’s spiritual arc from encounter to transformation, onward to growth.

Micah Rickard is an aerospace engineer and freelance writer living in Seattle. He enjoys writing about film and literature and how they orient our being-in-the-world. Micah’s work has been published at Think ChristianEkstasis, and Fathom.