While Nightmare of the Wolf‘s storytelling struggles to build momentum, this gorgeously animated prequel to The Witcher has a climax as tremendous as it is vicious.
Actions have consequences. Or, as John Wick would put it, “everything’s got its price.” From an intimate promise to a precisely-worded declaration before a crowd, making a play sends out an echo. And that echo can be anything and everything from magnificent to apocalyptic. In the grim world of The Witcher, the apocalyptic is more likely, whether personal, national, or global. Kwang Il Han’s animated feature The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf makes this clear through splendidly choreographed action and a great heaping murder of metaphorical crows coming home to roost.
Adapted from the works of author Andrzej Sapkowski, Nightmare of the Wolf is a prequel to the main Witcher stories. A generation before series protagonist Geralt of Rivia walked the continent in the pages of Sapkowski’s novels, the Lauren Schmidt Hissrich-run Netflix series, and the acclaimed video game trilogy, his mentor Vesemir (voiced in English by Theo James) was as much a roguish swashbuckler as he was a professional monster hunter. Vesemir is unique among his Witcher peers. As a youth seeking a life beyond indentured servitude, he joined the alchemically mutated monster hunters of his own free will, rather than being selected by or sold to them.
The life of a Witcher is extraordinarily perilous. Even with their sense- and strength-enhancing mutations, expertly crafted weapons, and potent magics, they battle the most lethal creatures in the world for a living—to say nothing of the nightmarish process that goes into transforming a baseline human boy into a Witcher. But, provided they survive these perils, there’s money in monster hunting. As much as people may despise Witchers as mutants, their knowledge and skills make them the people to turn to when there’s a monster on the loose. And Vesemir’s damn good at monster hunting. His glyphs, swords, and potions have won him luxuries he could only dream of as a servant boy.
But as much as he’d like to go from hunt to hunt and pleasure to pleasure, the world will not allow Vesemir to while away his days with hot baths and good wine. After years in decline, monsters are resurging—and mutating into new, deadly forms. Elven girls are disappearing. A powerful sorceress and politician named Tetra Gilcrest (voiced by Lara Pulver in English) leads a growing movement to drive the Witchers out of civilization. Gilcrest’s political opponent Lady Zerbst (voiced by Mary McDonnell in English) is running what interference she can, but her influence is waning. Secrets of all sorts will soon slither out of their hiding places, and Vesemir will have to face them and all that they bring with them.
Nightmare of the Wolf is a relatively solid film that primarily succeeds on the strength of its extended climax. Kwang Il Han’s action direction is superb (Studio MIR, Nightmare of the Wolf‘s animators, are also known for The Legend of Korra—a program beloved for, amongst other things, its awesome fight scenes) throughout, but particularly shines here. He moves from a siege to a desperate brawl to a series of one on one confrontations, all of which dance between action and horror with style.
Vesemir and his fellow Witchers are tremendous fighters, graceful and acrobatic, equally capable of delivering a clean cut or a ruthless mauling. Gilcrest’s spellcasting always has a physical element to it, whether she’s in direct combat or working at range. And the monsters, be they small or titanic, are ferocious. Vesemir is superhuman. Nightmare of the Wolf makes it clear that his enhancements are the bare minimum necessary to keep up with the monsters he hunts. Power alone isn’t enough to kill a monster. Knowledge of their weaknesses is critical, as is an ability to improvise on the fly. And sometimes? Sometimes it comes down to luck.
Nightmare of the Wolf is a relatively solid film that primarily succeeds on the strength of its extended climax.
Nightmare of the Wolf‘s climax uses its constant, impeccable action to tell a story about the ways that things come undone, the ways that injuries unreconciled and secrets unanswered can trigger calamity. Would that the rest of its storytelling was as strong. The opening act teeters awkwardly between Vesemir’s present and flashbacks detailing his youth and his first encounter with the Witcher Deglan (Graham McTavish, whose animated beard is similarly splendid to his real one), the man who will become his mentor and foil. The second act is livelier, thanks to a reluctant alliance between Vesemir and Gilcrest. James and Pulver build a compellingly sour, antagonistic chemistry for the two.
But uff, the dialogue can be painfully blunt and rote. And while Nightmare of the Wolf makes a point of including characters of color in its world, its Black characters die horribly often enough that it becomes an unwelcome pattern in the picture.
The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf‘s terrific last act makes the film. Its intensity and terror pull its story together into something coherent, a tale that forces Vesemir to take stock of who he is and who he needs to be and to do the work necessary for that. Getting there is a wobbly affair, but for folks who dig The Witcher, this is well worth checking out.
The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf is now available on Netflix.