No longer is The Witcher just a Netflix series – now it’s a whole cinematic universe with live-action prequels, animated spin-offs, WitcherCon and whatever else showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich comes up with as part of a massive golden handcuffs deal recently made with the streaming giant.
And as fans wait for season two of the original Henry Cavill series (itself based on a hefty pile of novels and bestselling video games), the first of these spin-offs has arrived in the form of The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf, an anime movie from the legendary Studio Mir that tells the life story of another monster hunter called Vesemir.
Full of Easter Eggs for die-hard fans, plenty of backstory for the main series and the kind of kinetic action that can only be brought to life in animation, Nightmare of the Wolf should the perfect example of how this new wider Witcher world of spin-offs will work – but in reality, the finished product feels like a missed opportunity, a half-hearted prequel that should have had the courage to stand on its own two feet.
Fans of the books or games will be very familiar with lead character Vesemir, usually portrayed as the aged mentor of Henry Cavill’s Geralt of Rivia (he’s due to make his first live-action appearance in The Witcher season two, played by Killing Eve’s Kim Bodnia). Still, viewers who haven’t come across him before needn’t worry – all you need to know for this series is that he’s a cocky young Witcher more interested in payment than honour or doing the right thing.
Vesemir’s journey from selfish to selflessness is an intriguing prospect, but never really gets the chance to grow in this overstuffed adventure, which crams a lot of story into a relatively slight hour-and-20-minute runtime. Somehow this film needs to fill in Vesemir’s life story (which doubles as an explainer for how witchers are created), a brewing war between men and witchers, a hunt for a monster killing citizens in a forest, a two-hander between Vesemir and chilly sorceress Tetra (Lara Pulver), the destruction of witcher stronghold Kaer Morhen (a historic event in the witcher books and series) and cameos and easter eggs to tie things together with the main series.
Really, Nightmare of the Wolf would have made a brilliant four-part series (or six-part with shorter episodes). As it stands, the wonderful art style and occasionally affecting parts of Vesemir’s story are overshadowed by less well-developed moments elsewhere, with the highlights given little time to breathe with so much to fit in.
There’s a version of this project with some of the same ingredients – the style, the panache, the imagination of the action, the emotional throughline, even the widening witcher lore – which is utterly brilliant. But the version that exists doesn’t quite hit those heights, foundering in the foothills as it jumps erratically from beat to beat.
If Nightmare of the Wolf hadn’t felt the pressure to cram in more or less every bit of Witcher history, it would have been a better film. If it hadn’t needed to essentially drop off Vesemir’s story at the beginning of Geralt’s (who has a small cameo in the film), it would have been better. As it stands, the Witcher’s first spin-off tries to tell too much, too fast, and to connect too many dots.
Altogether, it’s a slightly shaky start for the Witcher Netflix Universe (or whatever snazzy name they come up with for it). Fingers crossed that the inevitable future of mass Witcher spin-offs manages to make better use of their raw materials.