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WOLFWALKERS – Bruno Coulais

December 11, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Wolfwalkers is the latest film from Irish feature animation studio Cartoon Saloon and their lead director Tomm Moore; their previous efforts include 2009’s The Book of Kells, 2014’s Song of the Sea, and 2017’s The Breadwinner, all of which were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. It’s an ethereal, fantastical adventure steeped in Irish folklore set in the 16th century, and follows the story of a young apprentice hunter named Robyn Goodfellowe, who journeys to Ireland with her father to cull the last wolf pack on the island. While exploring the forest, Robyn befriends a free-spirited girl named Mebh MacTíre, who is a member of a mysterious tribe rumored to have the ability to transform into wolves by night. As their friendship develops, Mebh convinces Robyn to help her search for her missing mother, and before long Robyn is drawn into the enchanted world of the Wolfwalkers. The film features the voice talent of child actresses Honor Kneafsey and Evan Whittaker, alongside Sean Bean as Robyn’s father, and singer-songwriter Maria Doyle Kennedy as Mebh’s mother. It received a great deal of critical acclaim following its premiere at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, and looks set to earn Moore and his team a fourth consecutive Oscar nomination.

The score for Wolfwalkers is by French composer Bruno Coulais, who also scored both The Book of Kells and Song of the Sea (The Breadwinner was scored by Mychael and Jeff Danna). Coulais is an interesting composer, with a lovely lyrical style and a special affinity for voices in his scores but, despite receiving a Best Song Oscar nomination for The Chorus in 2005, he hasn’t really made much of an impression in English-speaking cinema, where his most well-known work remains the 2009 animated film Coraline. Wolfwalkers – like The Book of Kells and Song of the Sea before it – could change all that, if enough people take the time to actually seek it out and listen, because it’s just superb: a mystical, enchanting adventure that blends contemporary orchestrations with lush Celtic influences, and several beautiful original songs. To capture the essence of ancient Ireland, Coulais again collaborated with the Dublin-based folk group Kíla, whose iconic sound lends the whole score a genuine authenticity.

The score is built around four recurring themes – one for Robyn, one for Mebh, one for Mebh’s mother Moll, and one for the overall concept of ‘wolfwalkers’ themselves. Each of the four themes gets a concert statement, introducing the ideas to the listener so that the detail of the underscore itself can be revealed . The main “Wolfwalkers Theme,” which opens the score, is a light, delicate piece for vocals over a hypnotic percussion rhythm, which slowly grows to encompass a lovely, dream-like wash of strings. “Mebh’s Tune” is a light, dance-like piece for Celtic woodwinds, bodhrán drums, fiddles, and light glassy textures which speak to the girl’s association with the supernatural, and is gently evocative and a little playful. “Robyn’s Tune” is more traditionally medieval in tone, with a clear renaissance flavor running through the melody, especially when it is carried by flutes and recorders alongside guitars and fiddles. It’s a cheerful, down-to-earth piece, very different from the ethereal nature of Mebh’s theme, and as such provides a nice counterbalance. Finally, “Howls the Wolf – Moll’s Song/Wolf Run Free” adopts similar tonal stylistics to Mebh’s theme, but incorporates a simple repeated lyric sung in English by actress Maria Doyle Kennedy. All four pieces are just enchanting, and will appeal to anyone who has an affinity for Irish-flavored music.

The rest of the score builds out from these main quartet of core themes, often adapting them into different dramatic and emotional guises, or playing them in intelligent counterpoint to illustrate shifting relationships. Several cues stand out as being especially noteworthy; for example, the opening part of “Wolves” takes the main Wolfwalkers theme and sets it against a more urgent, dramatic percussion beat and a turbulent string ostinato, giving it a sense of danger. Later, as the cue develops, it becomes more reflective, magical and solemn, bathing the cue in a moonlight glow of elegant classical violins, soothing voices, and subtly moody electronics.

Later, “Mechanical” is playful and charming, full of prancing textures for strings and dulcimers, backed by the motorized ticking of clockwork items. “Wolf or Girl” revisits the light vocals of the Wolfwalker theme, but cleverly blends them with some of the thematic material from Mebh’s theme, creating a sense of mystery regarding her true nature. This style of writing continues on into the lovely, serene “I’m a Wolfwalker,” which showcases a hypnotic undulating fiddle idea, more of the ghostly Wolfwalker voices, and a strident underpinning drumbeat that, when coupled with an equally determined string ostinato, adds to the cue’s dramatic drive.

“Our Forest” is the first of the score’s two action cues, a cunning blend of Robyn’s tune and the Wolfwalkers theme, which is then enlivened by bold string flourishes, driving percussion, and additional colors from dulcimers and harpsichords which seem to represent Robyn’s father and his desire to hunt the wolves. There are some quite abstract electronic ideas and subtle orchestral manipulation techniques in the second half of the cue that are very effective, and remind me in a small way of Jerry Goldsmith’s Legend. This darker approach continues on into the subsequent “This Is Intolerable,” which uses torturous-sounding string figures to create an atmosphere of threatening menace, and adds dark twists to several of the recurring main themes. Some of the string writing in that latter cue has a hint of Wojciech Kilar to the phrasing, which pleases me greatly.

Both “Please Mummy” and “My Little Wolf” continue to add to the ideas, with the former using enhanced electronic tones, and the latter featuring an especially notable solo violin performance that is really superb. The finale of the score begins with “Our Victory,” the second of the score’s two action cues, which builds on many of the ideas introduced in “Our Forest,” and includes several statements of the main themes, but has a more guttural, menacing sound, especially from the way the wandering strings and the exotic percussion patterns play off against each other. There are also some notable passages featuring more prominent brass, as well as some unusual glassy textures, which seem to be commenting on the nature of ‘the hunt’ and several of its associated instrumental conventions. The conclusive “Follow Me” is a gorgeous sigh of relief, a love letter to the green Irish countryside, the strength of the friendship at the core of the story, and the romantic notions of wild wolves living free. The subtle use of Mebh’s Tune is splendid, and the whole thing builds to a lush finale featuring the Wolfwalker vocals that is extremely satisfying.

Rounding out the album is a song, “Running with the Wolves,” performed by Norwegian vocalist and songwriter Aurora Aksnes. The song is not original to this film – it first appeared on her 2016 debut album ‘All My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend’ – although it was newly arranged and recorded for the movie, and fits well with both Coulais’s score and the tone of the film. It’s a shame it’s not an original piece from this film because it really is quite stunningly beautiful, and might have been a nice addition to the potential roster of songs up for an Academy Award in 2020. It’s also just yet more confirmation that the ‘ethereal female vocalist performing dreamy/magical/fantasy-sounding songs’ is fast becoming one of my favorite sub-genres of music.

Wolfwalkers is a really lovely score, one of the best works for an animated film in 2020. With this score Bruno Coulais has completed a superb trilogy of Irish flavored scores that really should be more popular and well-known than they are; it is perhaps not quite as good as either The Book of Kells or Song of the Sea, but it’s still very entertaining in a low-key way, and offers a relaxing, intimate portrait of Irish culture and fairytale fantasy that many will find very appealing.

Buy the Wolfwalkers soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Wolfwalkers Theme (1:24)
  • Wolves (4:19)
  • Running with the Wolves – Wolfwalkers Version (written by Aurora Aksnes, Nico Rebscher, and Michelle Leonard, performed by AURORA) (2:47)
  • Mechanical (1:38)
  • Wolf or Girl (1:29)
  • I’m a Wolfwalker (2:07)
  • Howls the Wolf – Moll’s Song/Wolf Run Free (performed by Kila) (1:57)
  • Our Forest (4:24)
  • What Are You Doing Here? (2:32)
  • This Is Intolerable (3:37)
  • Please Mummy (1:47)
  • My Little Wolf (2:21)
  • Our Victory (4:13)
  • Follow Me (3:27)
  • Mebh’s Tune (performed by Kila) (3:04)
  • Robyn’s Tune (performed by Kila) (1:43)

Running Time: 42 minutes 58 seconds

22D Music (2020)

Music composed by Bruno Coulais. Conducted by Deyan Pavlov. Performed by the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Bruno Coulais. Album produced by Bruno Coulais.

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  1. January 26, 2021 at 9:01 am

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