The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf will debut on Netflix on Aug. 23.
A prequel to The Witcher Season 1 that also sets up characters and events that will be important to Season 2 of the Netflix show, The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf is torn between the franchise’s future and its past. While it’s filled with lore and character building that might please dedicated fans, the split focus keeps the animated film from feeling like a story that can really stand on its own.
Nightmare of the Wolf follows Geralt of Rivia’s mentor and surrogate father Vesemir, who is voiced by Divergent’s Theo James (but will be played by Killing Eve’s Kim Bodnia in The Witcher Season 2). The young Vesemir couldn’t be more different than the White Wolf, a carefree rake who loves showing off, mixing witty banter with swordplay and then regaling ladies with tales of his adventures. James feels like he’s channeling Nathan Fillion’s swaggering Hal Jordan as he exudes a carefree charm, but there’s more than a little cruelty beneath it when he’s dealing with those he doubts have the strength or will to survive the harsh fantasy world of Andrzej Sapkowski’s books.
Vesemir’s path from a lowly servant to a professional monster slayer is told in flashbacks, and writer Beau DeMayo uses the same storytelling trick he helped employ as a writer on The Witcher Season 1, playing with expectations of how much time has passed between scenes based on how slowly Witchers age. The technique is cleverly used here, but DeMayo and director Kwang Il Han are a little too fond of misdirection in a story that tries to deliver plenty of twists but winds up being pretty predictable.
The plot sees Vesemir investigating monster attacks near Kaer Morhen, the mountain stronghold where the witchers of the School of the Wolf train. At the same time, the powerful sorceress Tetra (Sherlock’s Lara Pulver) is urging an attack on the fortress, pointing out that the witchers are magical mutants who don’t seem to be doing a particularly good job of protecting the populace.
The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf – 35 Images
Like many prequels, Nightmare of the Wolf suffers from a feeling of inevitability. The film is very similar to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, with two factions that feel threatened and desperate moving closer to direct confrontation. It’s in everyone’s best interest for cooler heads to prevail, but if you know much about the series, it’s clear early on that things aren’t going to work out so smoothly.
Like in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the movie tries to stuff in too many nods to characters and conflicts that will be important later. Some plots, like a scathing indictment of the genocidal war against the elves and other Elder Races, still at least add to the narrative of the film they’re in. The name dropping of major characters appearing in Season 2 of the Netflix show adds little beyond a shallow attempt at hype building.
Where Nightmare of the Wolf does shine is the animation, which allows for storytelling that would be impractical even with the live-action show’s impressive budget. There are some excellent fight sequences that really capture the sword and sorcery roots of The Witcher. Some are riffs on things previously done in the series, like a dizzying fight with portals, but others feel like genuinely novel ways to mix spells, alchemy, and weapons that seem like they come from a deep place of affection for and knowledge of the source material.
The film takes a more is more approach to its action, which doesn’t always work. It’s exciting seeing Vesemir or his own mentor Deglan (Graham McTavish) taking on one or two fierce and wily monsters, but having multiple armies and swarms of creatures in the climax turns the affair into a ludicrous chaotic spectacle that feels more akin to an Avengers film or Lord of the Rings than The Witcher’s grittier tone. For all the carnage, the film’s nature as a prequel takes away many of the stakes if this isn’t your first experience with the Witcher.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an emotional impact. Kaer Morhan is gorgeous in its full glory, but it’s also a place of nightmares. The sequence showing Vesemir and his fellow recruits undergoing the Trial of the Grasses, the alchemical process that gives the witchers who survive their superhuman abilities, is the film’s most visceral. That’s saying something, since it also includes a spider-like monster crawling out of a woman and the gory dismemberment of multiple children. It provides new lore involving the fate of Kaer Morhan and the origins of monsters, which is sure to intrigue some fans, but is also a little heavy-handed in getting across the idea that man is the greatest monster of them all.
DeMayo plays with the series’ other dominant themes to varying effect. There’s a surprisingly sweet romance that peeks out from all the bloodshed that also subverts expectations for what happens to the people a hero leaves behind when he starts his epic journey. The concept of destiny is also played with here, as various characters question how much agency they’ve had in their lives. There’s even a funny jab at the concept of the Law of Surprise — gifting someone you owe a favor with something you don’t know you have — which is so key to the plot of The Witcher. But the jokes and charm are too often weighed down by the movie’s attempts to hammer home core messages, with characters repeating lines like “a witcher never hesitates” scene after scene.
The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf isn’t a bad film, but it fundamentally lacks an identity of its own. It’s a fine way to spend 80 minutes if you want to pick up some fresh lore and get to meet a very different Vesemir than the one we’re likely to see in Season 2, but it probably won’t get anyone new to the franchise to stick around, or even convince anyone who was lukewarm on the live-action series to get more invested in the world.