At the dawn of the third decade of the 21st Century, I for one am ready to anoint Cartoon Saloon the finest animation studio in the world outside of Japan. The studio's wonderful first three features - 2009's The Secret of Kells, 2014's Song of the Sea, 2017's The Breadwinner - might have been enough to make that argument on their own, in the absence of serious contenders for that title (Pixar has long since lost its way, I've never completely embraced Disney's CGI era, Laika is coming off its first misfire, and what other option could there possibly be?). But just to remove all doubt, the studio has no gifted us all with Wolfwalkers, its finest work to date, as well as the finest animated feature of (the admittedly anemic) 2020. One could pick at the thing on the corners, and find a good few things to quibble about, but it is a consummate work of animated art, a multi-layered metaphor in which a coming-of-age adventure morphs, is actually a girl-power and ecological conservation fable, and is actually actually a firebreathing "fuck the English" tale of Irish nationalism; but it is none of these things at the expense of its vivid, bright animation, which I would be inclined to characterise as "The Secret of Kells, but we've really started to get the hang of what we can do with computers now".

In the 17th Century, an English girl named Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) - and that's a pretty loaded name to give a character and then do literally nothing with it, but I get that the kids in the target audience probably don't have A Midsummer Night's Dream memorised - has traveled against her will to Kilkenny, Ireland (the present-day home of Cartoon Saloon) with her father Bill (Sean Bean), some little while after they lost her mother. Bill has been brought there at the request of the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney), a hulking square-shouldered tyrant who is presumably modelled upon Oliver Cromwell, though he is clearly not the same as Oliver Cromwell. For Bill is a world-class hunter, and the woods around Kilkenny have a world-class wolf problem, and the Lord Protector's plan to raze Ireland and turn it into docile pasture land for English colonists requires that the woods and thus the wolves be gotten rid of.

Robyn, an energetic tomboy, wants nothing but to prove herself a hunter equal to her father, but when she sneaks outside of the town walls and into the woods armed with only a crossbow and a very animated-movie-sidekick falcon named Merlin, she quickly runs afoul of a wolf pack, and the very peculiar little red-haired human girl who runs with them. This turns out to be Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whittaker), who is a "wolfwalker" - either a human with a wolf spirit or a wolf with a human spirit, it's tough to say, but she can take the form of either. In due course, she and Robyn have become best friends, and Robyn gets a crash course in the exquisite power of nature and the primal life force of the untamed land, and finds herself at odds with her father, who is so deeply terrified of the Lord Protector that he lacks even the slightest will to fight for himself, his daughter, or his sense of what's right.

This is, to begin with, a lovely script - I am not absolutely certain that I think this is the best-animated Cartoon Saloon production (mostly for one inordinately petty reason that we'll get to in a minute), but I have no doubt at all that it's the best-written. The script by Will Collins (working from a story by co-directors Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart) juggles a lot of themes, and even if it wasn't, just doing the work of putting in enough historical context for the conflict between England/urbanisation/men/progress and Ireland/nature/women/tradition to make sense as a narrative while also remaining a simple, clean children's movie would be admirable enough on its own. For this to be fun on top of being functional with all that density of material is a real achievement, and for it to have several moments of genuine emotional depth is more of an achievement still. The gap in understanding between Robyn and Bill is genuinely sad in a basic, intimate way, showing two people desperate for life to make sense and be normal latching onto mutually exclusive paths for trying to enforce that normalcy. It's a story of a child and parent who both mean well, at cross purposes to each other, and it's tender and affecting in ways that go beyond the historical and cultural trappings. The contrast between two moments in the middle of the film - Robyn proudly laying out her plan to convince her father that the wolfwalkers exist, with Kneafsey ebulliently steamrolling her way through the story, and the rushed, confused way in which Bill dismisses her without even realising she's talking, with Bean providing some excellent, tired-sounding lines, is a perfect little encapsulation of domestic tragedy.

That being said, even a very well-written Cartoon Saloon production isn't going to be appealing first and above all because of a script, no matter how great; this is a studio that has developed an extremely recognisable house style, one that looks like nothing else in contemporary animation. And this is the inordinately petty reason: that style was absolutely ideal for The Secret of Kells, a film about the creation of a celebrated illuminated manuscript in the 9th Century. It has the lines, the colors, and the flat non-perspective of medieval art, given blazingly clear life through movement and digital painting, and it's basically the same look as the studio has always used since (The Breadwinner backed off on the lack of linear perspective). Moore has identified Wolfwalkers as being the conclusion to a previously unannounced "Irish folklore trilogy", and given that it follows The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea in using Irish folk art style to tell a tale about Irish identity forming in the presence of quintessentially Irish mythical figures, I absolutely see the links. But there's a lot of space between the 9th Century and the 16th, and what felt natural or even inevitable as an aesthetic choice in The Secret of Kells feels a bit like shtick here.

Fuckin' hell, what shtick, though! Wolfwalkers might be clearly descended from Moore's two other features as a director, but it deepens and enriches their aesthetic, ending up as one of the most beautiful animated features I have ever seen, and I say that in all awareness that hyperbole is a thing that exists. It would be incredibly difficult to even start cataloguing the visual splendors of Wolfwalkers, which abound on every level. There is the ingenious linework and coloring - the town and the English have tight, straight lines and crisp colors that neatly fit in the outlines, while the forest and the Irish and especially the wolfwalkers themselves are round and soft, loosely sketched and smudged in their painting - a neat trick, given that they haven't been "painted" in any meaningful sense. My favorite touch is that the natural-world characters frequently show the ghosts of the pencil sketches used to define their body shapes, flashes of scrawled, uneven circles behind their hips or in their faces. It gives them a casual, raw, organic feeling.

Then there's the lighting, which somehow accentuates the flatness of the film while creating the impression of three-dimensional objects with depth and texture. The film also uses lighting to create specific moods - it is color-coded, though not in a way that immediately announces itself, especially because much of the color seems realistically motivated by the location and the autumnal setting - but what's really interesting to me are the shadows, which rather than suggesting depth and presence, add an additional graphic layer to the images. They abstract, rather than deepen, especially when they are appear as simply triangular silhouettes.

And there's the introduction of a brand-new aesthetic element, the "wolfvision" scenes which show us what wolfwalkers see and smell. It's not really all that original, truth be told; I had pretty strong flashbacks to The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess the first time that the black background, pale blue characters, and streamers of bright-colored smells showed up. But it has been incorporated into the rest of Wolfwalkers in a thoroughly sublime way. The wolfvision scenes are extremely three-dimensional, both in the movement of the virtual camera through space, and the rounded weight of the wolf characters bounding with an degree of anatomical realism not even briefly imagined elsewhere in the film. It's a straightforward but highly effective way of suggesting a different way of seeing, one that is limited in certain ways but deepened in others, and the astonishing shift in the film's energy when these sequences show up is the kind of pure magic that is the reason for animation.

Taken all together, we have a film that would have been one of the standouts of the year even in a year that wasn't wanting for good movies so desperately as the parched wasteland of 2020. It is a visual marvel that pushes the medium to bold new extremes without feeling the need to reinvent anything; it is a clever story mixing history, culture, and personal emotions into a single flow of fairy tale logic; and its constant momentum makes it extremely likable and exciting, on top of being good. Unmissable all around, then, but it is especially the kind of movie that makes me yearn to have a child to share it with; if I saw this for the first time when I was 10 years old, I have no doubt in my mind that would have been my favorite movie of all time.