Nightmare of the Wolf serves as great additional material to Netflix ’s fantasy series, introducing us to new characters we’ll meet in The Witcher ‘s Season 2.
Critically, Netflix ’s The Witcher received mixed reviews upon its release, back in December of 2019. Some found the show too difficult to follow due to its non-linear storytelling approach, while others found it exciting and a nice change of pace compared to other fantasy series. Despite criticisms, the show found a much-dedicated audience and was considered a commercial success, leading to several announced spin-offs. The Witcher follows your typical chosen-one trope these stories usually have, while a great war rages in the background, with the importance of destiny in the hero’s journey. But unlike most fantasy adaptations that take themselves too seriously, whether they’re film or television series, The Witcher has way more fun with its themes, world-building and roster of colorful characters. Geralt’s (Henry Cavill, Zack Snyder’s Justice League) dry humor during his quests of killing monsters and constantly being dragged into other people’s conflicts helps this story be more accessible to the viewer, as it humanizes our protagonist and makes us hungry to learn more about this world’s history and lore. Season 2 will hopefully give us an even better look at Geralt’s relationship with his witcher-family, his child of surprise Ciri (Freya Allan, Gunpowder Milkshake) and his love interest Yennefer (Anya Chalotra, Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas). But before we get to see any of that, we need to learn about Geralt’s mentor and his upbringing. That is where The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf comes into play.
*WARNING: Spoilers ahead*
The Witcher universe expands outside of the live-action world with this anime origin story. Before there was Geralt, there was his mentor Vesemir (Theo James, Castlevania) who, as a child, ran away from poverty in order to become a witcher and make a living slaying monsters. The film opens with an ominous, horror-like massacre as this random family is suddenly attacked by a forest spirit known as Leshen. The family’s father, who’s traveling the dark woods in the middle of the night, is brutally murdered by the monster, along with his daughters, leaving his only son Sugo (Luke Youngblood, Galavant) running for his life. Just when we think he’ll become the Leshen’s final victim, Vesemir comes-in to the rescue and kills the beast. Not as a heroic act, though, but because he’s interested in the coin Sugo’s dead father left behind his corpse. From here, we follow Vesemir in his quest for money and glory as he confronts the demons of his past as he fights against real-life demons and monsters. Nightmare of the Wolf is a bloody, violent and surprisingly touching tale about betrayal and accepting one’s destiny that helps us understand the kind of man Geralt’s father figure was before we meet the wise old mentor in season 2 of The Witcher.
The story unfolds after the encounter with the Leshen, as Sugo is taken to meet King Dagread (Adam Croasdell, Preacher) of Kaedwen to speak up about his experience with Vesemir. Here, we meet Tetra Gilcrest (Lara Pulver, The Alienist), a mage trained in Aretuza, where all mages are trained, who is now serving the King. She has a strong vendetta against the witchers’ presence in Kaedwen and suggests they should be executed, or at the very least exiled, after accusing them of purposely setting up monster attacks in the region in order to earn easy money. Tetra’s prejudices are questioned by Lady Zerbst (Mary McDonnell, Battlestar Galactica), an advisor to the King, who demands Tetra for evidence before any action is taken against the witchers. But when Vesemir and his friend Luka (Matthew Yang King, Riverdale) are arrested after killing some royal guards in self-defense, he learns Lady Zerbst is actually an old childhood friend he used to be in love with and that is why she keeps defending him in court. Vesemir and Tetra are then forced to work together under the King’s command to investigate a strange, new monster terrorizing the kingdom. Here, we learn this monster is actually an elf named Kitsu (Kari Wahlgren, Elena of Avalor) who had been kidnapped by Vesemir’s own mentor, Deglan (Graham McTavish, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), in order to experiment with her magical powers and create new monsters that’d ensure witchers would be up for hire for years to come. The experiment goes sideways, though, twisting Kitsu’s mind and giving her enhanced abilities of illusion.
In the film’s chilling third act, everything comes together with storylines colliding. Tetra manipulates Kitsu into working for her and finally convinces the King to order for the killing of the witchers as Tetra commands two armies consisting of men and monsters given to her by King Dagread and Kitsu. Vesemir confronts Deglan about his sick experiments, only to be interrupted by Lady Zerbst as she manages to arrive at Kaer Morhen before Tetra does to warn the witchers about the coming attack. An epic, brutal battle ensues as we witness the genocide of the witchers, teachers and students alike being murdered. Vesemir manages to survive the night, but not without suffering losses. During his fight against Tetra, he is tricked into fatally wounding Lady Zerbst, thinking he had stabbed Kitsu instead. Deglan then murders the mage as he too falls to his own death. Kitsu is left to run free since she too was a victim of other people’s manipulations. In the end, Vesemir has to endure watching the only person he ever loved die in his own arms as he learns there’s more important things in life other than fame and coin. He finds four remaining children training to become monster hunters who managed to survive as well. We see him give the children their signature witcher medallions as the film closes on a close-up shot of Geralt as a little kid, hinting at what’s to come.
Like its live-action counterpart, Nightmare of the Wolf follows a similar non-linear storytelling technique that retells Vesemir’s journey from being recruited by the witchers of Kaer Morhen, to chasing monsters as his arrogant self once we see him as an adult. There is a lot to unpack with this anime film just as much as there was with the show. There’s plenty of exposition, world-building, characters constantly repeating each other’s names and locations just to make sure the audience understands whom and what they’re talking about. In medieval fantasy, more than in any other genre, it’s hard to keep up with what’s going on on-screen, as there’s an overwhelming amount of information thrown at the audience all at once. I don’t know what it is about The Witcher universe, though, but their exposition is fascinating to listen to rather than boring or confusing. I’ll admit, it’s not perfectly done, but the world itself is so lively that it makes you feel like you’re there with the characters, which helps getting invested in the story. Vesemir as a protagonist is not what I was expecting going into this film, but it was a welcome surprise. Reading the books, playing the video games, and eagerly waiting for season 2 of The Witcher, I’ve had this idea in my head that he’s always been a good man and pure of heart, trying to help his students whom he sees as his own sons. But watching a completely different version of him right from the start, with him abandoning Sugo in the woods to his own luck after taking his dead father’s coin, took a minute to adjust. Once you realize what the filmmakers behind Nightmare of the Wolf were trying to do with his characterization in the film, it makes for an incredibly compelling arc for Vesemir.
All of the characters in Nightmare of the Wolf are surprisingly well-written. On one hand, we have our unlikely hero, Vesemir, who is stubborn and cares about nobody but himself. There’s Deglan, who does terrible things to innocents, but you understand where he is coming from since he doesn’t want witchers to go out of business. Then we have Tetra Gilcrest, whose hatred for the monster hunters comes from the fact that one killed her own mother under false accusations when she was just a child. These are just a few characters of many, but they’re all grounded in reality. Nightmare of the Wolf doesn’t just thrive in its writing, but in its visuals as well. Studio Mir, whose work consists of anime series such as The Legend of Korra, brought so much personality and authenticity to the world of The Witcher with their art style that couldn’t have been made in any other format. Trying to make the story of Nightmare of the Wolf fit in a live-action environment would have been nearly impossible to the point where a lot of it would have to be rewritten. For example, The Witcher’s first season has a total of ten monstrous creatures. Most of them were brought to life either through VFX, practical effects, or a mix of both. Even when we see these monsters, they’re not on screen for too long as they’re extremely expensive to keep on frame. But with animation, your only limitation is your imagination. You don’t have to worry about it looking real, you just have to concern yourself that it’s visually striking and it flows with the rest of the animated characters and setting. The film’s final battle is a great example of this: we have witchers spinning and jumping around fighting both humans and monsters while elves and mages are casting spells and illusion to win the battle. Everything falls into place like a piece of a puzzle, integrating everything perfectly without it looking jarring to the audience.
You can tell writer Beau DeMayo and director Kwang II Han, the creative duo behind Nightmare of the Wolf, had so much passion and love for this project. DeMayo wrote arguably the best episode of The Witcher’s first season, Betrayal Moon, so transitioning to the world of animation with a tight script written by himself, who is already familiar with the source material, makes for a seamless collaboration between the animated and live-action world. Director Han has had experience working in the animation department for Avatar: The Last Airbender, a lived-in and detailed universe filled with history and lore. The novels Netflix’s adaptations are based on are very descriptive when it comes to the setting and background of this world. So, seeing how Han took the time to study the books to properly bring it to life on-screen is just awesome; the road to Kaer Morhen syncing pretty damn well with how it’s described in the novels. Also, for an animated feature, the choreography in the fight scenes are really impressive, almost on the same level as the live-action stuff. Theo James, Lara Pulver, Mary McDonnell and everyone involved in the voice cast is incredible. You feel the pain, anger, frustration and silliness of the characters and not a single voice actor is phoning it in and you can tell.
The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf is a must watch for any fan of this franchise. It doesn’t matter if it’s through the video games, the Netflix series, or the novels: every time we get a new take on this universe, the creators bring in their unique vision for this world, and this anime film is no exception. It’s beautiful to look at, it has a voice that can stand on its own, the writing is immaculate, the characters are layered from top to bottom, and is one of those few prequels where it adds a great amount of rich backstory to an already great story, rather than taking away from it. Maybe newcomers will find this difficult to get into as it does assume you’ve, at the very least, seen the live-action TV show. But even then, I wouldn’t be surprised if Vesemir’s story perhaps will attract a new audience and get them invested for more. Between now and December, which is when season two will be released, it’s a great time to be a witcher fan and even better to become one for the very first time with this colorful, adult fantasy drama.
The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf is now available to watch on Netflix.
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