Despite not quite sticking the landing on its freshman season critically, Netflix is betting big on its Witcher franchise after the huge viewing numbers the first season got back in 2019. Fans can also expect a sophomore season of the main show and a live-action spinoff called Blood Origin, but before all that, fans can watch the animated feature film Nightmare of the Wolf. So, does this movie, from Studio Mir (The Legend of Korra), and directed by Kwang Il Wan and written by Beau DeMayo, deliver the goods and enrich the franchise or is this just a misfire that tries to keep the brand alive?
Nightmare of the Wolf, marketed as an anime by Netflix (but I’d argue that it isn’t one), stars Castlevania’s Theo James as the fan favourite character Vesemir, whose normally portrayed in the books or video game adaptations as a grumpy yet lovable old mentor to the remaining witchers. However, this animated feature is a prequel and Vesemir is now a charming and roguish monster hunter who lavishes in coin and the finer things in life, unlike Henry Cavill’s brooding Geralt from the live action series. It makes for a nice change of tempo and James continues to crush it with his voice talent, making Vesemir instantly likable, despite his cocky nature. Vesemir carries the story and there’s an interesting and touching romance between him and another character in the film that played against norms. The plot sees Vesemir returning to Kaer Morhen, the stronghold of the School of the Wolf, and uncovering a conspiracy that threatens all witchers in the process while reconciling with his past. Nightmare of the Wolf isn’t the most ideal starting point for fans, and I’d say you have to be at least versed in season one to appreciate some of the story beats and world building, but you wouldn’t be completely lost if you watched this first. But overall, this serves to compliment the live action story, specifically the second season of The Witcher, which will see the action return to Kaer Morhen for a time and introduce us to a live-action version of Vesemir, played by Killing Eve’s Kim Bodnia.
It’s just such a shame that so much of the story focuses on Vesemir’s past. In the first half of Nightmare of the Wolf, we often cut to his time as a child and his transition from lowly peasant to terrified witcher adept. It’s certainly an interesting story, but the flashbacks mess with the momentum of the early parts of the story, which makes me think this story would have possibly been better if it was told linearly. Likewise, while the script thankfully gets better as the runtime clocks on but it tries too hard to work in a “twist” event that can be seen a mile away and deflates any surprise or tension from the plot. Thankfully, the show did have another trick up its sleeve come the end, which I did enjoy.
Speaking of the present day story, it deals with the witchers being targeted and judged as murdering abominations manipulating the population with fear for profit. A gory and truly terrifying Leshen attack opens the film and there are those who wonder if the attack was staged by the witchers to earn some coin, which is proving harder for them to come by as monster populations dwindle. Fear and prejudice begin to set in. All this leads up to a showcase event that fans of the lore will no doubt be excited to see and will no doubt be mentioned in season two of the second series. There are a few moments that are a little too on the nose as it amps up excitement for season 2 of The Witcher, but it never compromises the story. While I thought the flashback tale derailed the primary story, it did offer up plenty of interesting pieces, all of which I would have liked to have seen more of. But the most critical of these flashbacks is witnessing these orphans and runaways actually transform into witchers via The Trial of the Grasses. It’s a truly horrifying sequence and one that makes you question if we’re supposed to root for witchers as “heroes”. That’s the one thing the film does well; the ambiguous nature of whether the witchers are noble knights out to vanquish evil, as Geralt sees himself, or inhumane monsters themselves.
Joining Theo James in this film are Lara Pulver as Tetra, a sorceress with some serious distrust of witchers, Mary McDonnell as Lady Zerbst, a member of the King’s court and Graham McTavish as Degland, Vesemir’s mentor. All three provide solid voice work, but Degland’s character is the weakest of the three, while Tetra is genuinely interesting. The minor characters, however, especially children, fair much poorly, as they’re often voiced by adults clearly doing their best “kid voice” for the roles more often than not. Considering there are children present in the opening of the film, it’s not per se the best first impression. But where the voice acting is inconsistent, the animation definitely isn’t. Thanks to the freedom of being animated, Nightmare of the Wolf can realize action scenes that Geralt could only dream of. There’s a ton of magic, unlike the live-action series, the monsters are creepy and the action is over the top in the best ways. It’s also incredibly violent and gory, much like Castlevania, so if you’re squeamish or think because it’s animated it’s likely for kids, think again. Sometimes the violence is done in the name of style, but sometimes it’s downright horrific, pulled straight from a horror film to make you feel shocked or uncomfortable.
Considering this feature film is less than 90 minutes long, there’s a lot of story to cram into a short amount of screen time. This is why it’s tough to juggle two critical stories at once. The leads do a great job, but the rest of the cast is spotty at best. There’s also a lot of set up for season two of The Witcher and one has to wonder if this movie is merely trying to hype us up for that show, which has to be good enough for Netflix to green light a third season. Considering the potentially murky future, perhaps this would have been better off as a mini-series, where the story and characters, who are very interesting, could be better realized over time. That said, I would definitely like to see more of young Vesemir one day and would welcome a sequel to Nightmare of the Wolf if it addresses some of these issues. .