The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. A rich yet depressive fantasy epic spanning multiple nations plagued by monsters and war. It’s a story about prejudice and choosing between greater and lesser evils. Amidst all of that, it remains a world that players couldn’t help but get lost in.
After the release of the live-action Witcher series on Netflix, the game saw a resurgence in interest from fans new and old. I should know, I was replaying it too. It was a quirky and often epic show that had its highs and lows, but despite it all, I loved it. News of new spinoffs and films were only natural, but was the franchise biting off more than it could chew?
If I had any concerns, they were minor, because Nightmare of the Wolf, the first of these spinoffs, was a film I highly anticipated. It came from Studio Mir, the studio behind Legend of Korra. Everything looked in place for this to be an enjoyable prequel centered around Vesemir, Geralt’s mentor.
And somehow, this film surpassed every expectation I had.
“Expectation” is a strange beast when justifying praise. An appraisal based on low expectation can either be informed by previous disappointment or – less efficiently – a lack of a proper mindset to judge it fairly in the first place. In this case, I expected as much as the marketing lead me to and was surprised to find a story much deeper than the already pleasing teasers offered.
Nightmare of the Wolf follows Vesemir through his early days as a child who wished for more than just a lowly peasant life. A life of adventure was what drew him to be a Witcher. Naïve, sure, but his rationale isn’t hard to understand the more he elaborates on it. Witchers don’t all survive the trials necessary to make them, but the ones that do are strong enough to weather the worst of the world. Vesemir wants to be strong enough to never fear anything again.
The first half of the film goes back and forth between him joining the Witchers and him during his prime several decades later when he’s 70. Compared to every other entry in The Witcher series, this story shows a time when Witchers were common and when the populace had a… comparably better relationship with them.
Kaer Morhen, the Witcher stronghold, is brimming with the monster hunters. But this leads to a unique predicament that begins the journey. Witchers are doing a great job, and monster populations are dwindling. They’re preparing to train new kids to join, but with fewer monsters, there’s less work. Some Witchers are leaving to become simple mercs and the ones still in the business need to get thriftier.
Vesemir is no saint. He lacks certain compassion when it comes to the suffering he sees frequently. He could let himself become jaded, but why would he? He’s living the life he’s always wanted. The opening massacre he intervenes in ends with him stealing money from the dead and directing an orphaned boy to “put on a sad face” to get the help he needs. Not exactly hero material.
It’s no surprise then that some in the country of Kaedwen think Witchers are evil and are exploiting the public. One such skeptic is the witch Tetra Gilcrest, a witch who repeatedly demands justice be done. When more murders continue in Kaedwen, despite the beasts presumably having been killed, Vesemir and Tetra are put together to investigate.
The trailers would lead you to believe that this is the main driving force of the film. I expected the movie to follow the two unlikely allies as they got closer. What resulted was far less formulaic than what I just described. For one thing, that call to action to investigate together doesn’t occur until the halfway point.
The first half of the film treats us to Vesemir’s origins, world-building about the Witchers, a taste of the politics between factions in the story. All that, and some beautiful action. The second half quickly flips the script and lights a powder keg right between all of the aforementioned factions, leading to a tense third act. The drama and horror of the tragedies match the darkest moments of the Witcher games.
Humans hate Witchers and Elves because they are inhuman. Elves hate humans because they took their magic and then murdered them. Mages hate Witchers because they are threats to law and order, among other reasons. Witchers hate everyone in return because they’re ungrateful and vindictive. And everyone hates monsters, even when those monsters have voices and minds of their own.
The Witcher reinforces how irrationally hateful and self-destructive anyone can be when they give in to prejudice. Everyone has a reason to hate someone else in this story. And everyone has convinced themselves that the only way their problems will be solved is if they kill the people they don’t understand.
People who I expected to be protagonists turned out to be the vilest of antagonists. Some who I thought would be the villains died tragically and I found myself missing them. Even when I thought the film was being too predictable, like foreshadowing a character’s villainous intent, the treatment of the character was so layered that I forgave it.
A large portion of that treatment was carried by this film’s gorgeous visuals and impeccable battle scenes. The action in The Witcher can vary in style depending on the adaptation. The video games could be grounded, but the action could also be heavily stylized the more fantastical the stakes became.
Compared to the Netflix live-action series, the continuity of which this film presumably exists within, the action is more spectacle than grounded. Think of the fight from the first episode of the live-action series and now give it drugs. That’s what the action is like for the whole movie. The animated medium is used to great effect to make this tragic but legendary tale a cut above. It feels appropriate that a story about the end of the Witchers’ glory days be brought to life like this.
While watching the spectacle and hearing the voice acting, you may mistake the people behind this film for the crew that made the Castlevania show. You’d be forgiven for this mistake considering the vocal direction and a few of the cast members are practically borrowed from that series.
Theo James plays Vesemir. James was also the voice of Hector in Castlevania and his charisma carries over nicely. It’s practically multiplied considering Vesemir suffers quite a bit less than poor Hector did. Graham McTavish also comes over from Castlevania, lending his voice as Delgan, Vesemir’s mentor. The vocal direction is stellar, but it sometimes suffers from a similar issue Castlevania had where some actors’ dialogue could be so whispery that it was hard to hear.
There’s also a Japanese dub that was prominently advertised with a trailer of a much different tone than the previous ones. It features a rock song by ROTTENGRAFFTY called “HALLELUJAH” that – just to brace you for disappointment – isn’t the main theme of the movie, even for as awesome as it is.
Netflix stretching the bounds of what qualifies as anime is nothing new. In my review of Castlevania, I expressed that I’ve stopped giving as much of a shit when it happens, so long as the films in question look to take more from Japanese animation than just “looking like anime.” It has to reflect some of the techniques and production styles/ philosophies incorporated with making anime to have a shot at being called it. My opinion is much the same here.
Look the point is to determine if this movie is worth your time and that has nothing to do with whether or not a colloquial term can be slapped on the tin. Besides this is like the third non-anime thing I’ve reviewed so it ain’t like I’m too much of a stickler. Believe me when I say that this film is worth your time.
Director Kwang Il Han has a storied history animating and storyboarding for Studio Mir on several western productions. Namely DC, Marvel, Avatar, and more. This is arguably his biggest directing work yet after three episodes of The Boondocks. I would like to see his name headline more productions. His command of the film’s pacing was impressive. It spent just the right amount of time establishing this world and its characters before getting into what the movie was really about.
Between emotional character relationships, relentless action spectacle, and heart-wrenching tragedy, this film is worthy of the Witcher name in so much more than surface-level qualities. It understands the balance between violence and beauty needed to connect with the audience and make them whether the blood and viscera to see what it all is saying.
If you loved The Witcher 3, this film is a must-watch.
The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf is available for legal streaming through Netflix.
What did you think of Nightmare of the Wolf? Do you want more Witcher animated films or are you more excited for the live-action series? Leave a comment below and tell me what other animated shows on Netflix I should review.
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time.