Mamoru Hosoda has followed his sweet science fiction drama with Summer Wars (2009) with Wolf Children, a family film that is about a remarkable family. It is a charming, engaging and delightful story which, coupled with exceptional predominantly cel-based animation, makes for is essential viewing. Piggy promise, promise kept (we hope).

Wolf Children follows the story of Hana (Aoi Miyazaki) and her children. So far, so normal, but the siblings’ father was a handsome young man who Hana met when she was a student and soon the pair had fallen very deeply in love. But Hana’s lover had to reveal a dark secret to her: that he was a wolf man, the last of an ancient dynasty of Japanese wolves. He quickly dispelled any myths about his canine form – no enforced transformation at the full moon and no eating people – and she loved him so much that she absolutely accepted him, wolf and all. Before long she became pregnant, giving birth to a lively, bubbly little girl, Yuki and within a year her brother, Ame (Yukito Nishii and Amon Kabe) followed. Although he was less exuberant than his older sister, the pair would trot around the house, often on all fours, their half-human, half-wolf nature manifesting itself whenever their emotions and enthusiasm took hold.

But disaster strikes the family when the father dies on an urban hunting trip in wolf form, leaving Hana with two children who have no recollection of their deceased parent and yet have to come to terms with the characteristics that they have inherited from him. To protect her children and escape from the city life that has already caused the man she loved to die, Hana seeks a move into the countryside to find accommodation that can suit her budget and allow her children the environment they need to fulfill their abilities, as wolves as well as humans. The children grow up and each must decide which path they must follow in life – that of humans or that of the wolf. The consequences for the family are financially, physically and emotionally challenging.

A genuinely delightful anime, Wolf Children has the capacity to appeal to a number of audiences. Life is full of learning, conflict, love and humour when you are growing up and these are the themes that Wolf Children primarily concentrates on throughout its running. There is a deep tragedy, early on, when the two children lose their father in a scene that is as honest as it is moving. But then there is the twist that the two young pups have to learn about their heritage and the physical way that it manifests itself – from delightful scampering and their semi-transformation from human to wolf with their cute pointed ears, to their desire to hunt and the lack of any role model who can help them understand their true nature. Hana is a wonderful mother; she’s not perfect and she constantly doubts her ability to raise her children but she cares deeply for them, despite having no idea how to raise them. When she asks Yuki, ‘Do you want to be human or wolf?’ the question is not asked out of malice and nor does it seek to force Yuki to make a choice between one state or the other; it is borne from sheer compassion and love, despite the fact that she is all too aware that the future may hold few choices for the pair who are destined to be both. Hana’s love for her children means that she constantly has to face challenges in her – and their – lives. When dealing with a sick child she has to chose between a consulting a doctor or a vet. She is hugely protective of her offspring and yet does not stifle them; she nurtures them, allowing them to grow and develop and to follow their dreams.

The film also addresses some societal issues. Hana tries to engage with her children by taking on a job at a wildlife centre, taking Ame, who clearly does not enjoy school, to meet a domesticated wolf. Wildlife and nature are integral to the plot, enhanced by exquisitely detailed animation from delicate flowers to 3-D point of view sequences that capture the wolves’ dynamic movements as they run over the mountainside and through the forests. As with Summer Wars and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) Mamoru Hosoda has also allowed his story to focus on female central characters (this is primarily the story of Hana, narrated by her daughter), but he does this in a way that doesn’t alienate a male audience. Indeed Ame’s story is integral to the plot, through his actions but also his relationship with his mother and sister.

As well as garnering well deserved critical acclaim, Wolf Children also did well at the box-office. It was the seventh most popular film in Japan in 2012, beating The Avengers, that monumental hit of the year across the rest of the globe. Wolf Children is a wonderful example of anime at its most delightful and imaginative. It is, at turns, moving, witty, humorous and heart-rending. A thoroughly satisfying viewing experience.