by Andrew Wyatt on Sep 1, 2021

While niche anime streaming services such as Crunchyroll and Funimation primarily rely on their robust back catalogs of classic and obscure animation to attract viewers, Netflix has embraced a different approach, one built predominantly around new, original content. (They’ve also gobbled up exclusive distribution deals for series that have never premiered outside of Japan.) Slowly but surely, the streaming giant has built a slate of well-regarded anime series that cover a variety of styles and genres, including Aggretsuko (2018-), Devilman Crybaby (2018), Carole & Tuesday (2019), and Kengan Ashura (2019). American and South Korean studios that produce anime-style animation have also been getting in on the venture, with series such as Voltron: Legendary Defender (2016-2018), Blood of Zeus (2020-) and Dota: Dragon’s Blood (2021-).

Netflix’s latest project with South Korea’s Studio Mir – which produced Voltron and Dota and animated the bulk of Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra (2012-14) – lies at the confluence of the streaming service’s anime offerings and its live-action fantasy programming. The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf is a one-off animated feature film, but it also serves as a prequel to Netflix’s sword-and-sorcery series, The Witcher (2019-). This makes Nightmare an odd beast, in terms of its intended audience. The film is clearly designed to attract the same viewers that made The Witcher one of Netflix’s buzzy success stories, but it also fits comfortably within the original anime programming block that the company has established. Indeed, it is perhaps not coincidental that Nightmare of the Wolf bears a passing resemblance to the Netflix anime series that is most visible to casual American viewers, Castlevania (2017-21): Both are dark fantasy-action stories characterized by their horror elements and ultra-violent tone.

For established fans of The Witcher, this new animated film is not exactly essential, but it should provide a gratifying dip into the series’ world as they wait for the premiere of the second season in December. Although the film is set decades prior to the live-action show – and therefore focuses on previously unseen characters – it does flesh out the series’ mythology quite splendidly. It also dramatizes a crucial historical event that will be familiar to devotees of Andrzej Sapkowski’s original novels and CD Projeckt Red’s acclaimed Witcher video-game series. Where other viewers are concerned, the obvious question is whether Nightmare of the Wolf functions well as a standalone serving of anime-flavored medieval fantasy. In terms of stylish animation, clever storytelling, and gruesome fantasy violence, the film certainly delivers, although it never does much to distinguish itself from Netflix’s numerous offerings in the same vein.

Familiarity with the lore of The Witcher is not strictly necessary to follow Nightmare of the Wolf, as the film swiftly establishes the basics. The witchers are a guild of monster hunters, mercenaries who roam a vast and nameless medieval continent, slaying creatures of legend in exchange for coin. Unlike the ageless sorcerers that skulk behind the thrones of this world’s petty kingdoms, witchers are not born but made: The young boys recruited by the order are subjected to horrifying alchemical mutations that grant them long lifespans, heightened senses, and rudimentary magic abilities.

Nightmare of the Wolf is centered on a cocky witcher named Vesemir (Theo James), a figure who will one day serve as mentor to the live-action series’ protagonist, Geralt. In the film’s opening scenes, Vesemir slays a predatory forest spirit that has slaughtered a traveling noble family. Clues from the scene lead Vesemir to suspect that another party was controlling the creature – and possibly other monsters in the region that have been exhibiting unusual and aggressive behavior. At the court of the local monarch, sorceress Tetra Gilcrest (Lara Pulver) is keen on blaming the witchers themselves for this recent spate of attacks, while the noblewoman Lady Zerbst (Mary McDonnell) argues for prudence and demands more evidence. While the king hems and haws, Vesemir is visited by an old elven ally, Filavandrel (Tom Canton), who has his suspicions about the creature that the witcher slew but also has his own interests to protect. Eventually, Vesemir is obliged to pair up with the disdainful Tetra to hunt down the mastermind who has been bedeviling the kingdom with this small army of mutated monsters.

Nightmare of the Wolf is a typical animated fantasy-action feature in most respects, stitching together high-octane anime action set-pieces with sequences of sleuthing, politicking, and pensive characterization. Beau DeMayo’s screenplay draws out what is essentially a 55-minute adventure to feature length by splicing in two lengthy flashbacks to Vesemir’s childhood. The rationale for this somewhat awkward structure eventually becomes clear – setting up a genuinely satisfying reveal – but the effect is nonetheless a little jarring. These flashbacks touch on young Vesemir’s (David Errigo Jr.) nascent romance with his friend Illyana (Jennifer Hale), his tutelage under the rough-edged, hard-drinking witcher Deglan (Graham McTavish), and his early days at Kaer Morhen, the castle stronghold of the witcher faction known as the School of the Wolf. The more intimate, character-centered quality to the flashbacks unfortunately means that it’s easy to forget about the present-day monster-investigation plot, creating some dissonance when the film snaps back to it after a 10-minute digression.

That said, director Kwang Il Han – a seasoned storyboard artist and animation director, here helming his first feature film – keeps the proceedings relatively brisk, lucid, and focused.  The first season of Lauren Schmidt Hissrich’s live-action series was a bit wobbly in its early episodes as it struggled to find a consistent, distinctive tone and establish itself as something other than Netflix’s Game of Thrones also-ran. In contrast, Kwang’s film knows exactly what it’s about, serving up plenty of gory, exaggerated witcher-on-monster action and embellishing it with the sort of wild acrobatics and over-the-top pyrotechnics that don’t really work in a live-action context. Like Hissrich’s series, Nightmare of the Wolf makes an effort to capture something of the witchers’ balletic swordplay technique, which Sapkowski describes so vividly in his novels and which proves a terrific fit for anime-style animation. Kwang also employs montage shrewdly and imaginatively, most memorably in a sequence where a bittersweet letter from Illyana is read aloud over wordless shots of young Vesemir’s brutal initiation rites at Kaer Morhen.

Nightmare of the Wolf leads directly into The Witcher’s upcoming season – in which an aged Vesimir plays a crucial role – but the film’s modest success as a dark fantasy tale doesn’t really depend on the live-action series. Viewers who are already enamored with Sapkowski’s Slavic-flavored, Tolkienesque setting will probably appreciate this stylized interpretation of the world, but everything that Kwang’s feature does well, it does well on its own. The roguish, swaggering Vesemir is a shallow but charming character, and his secret heartache for the quiet life he might have had with Illyana proves to be a surprisingly poignant emotional foundation for what is, in essence, a hyper-violent cartoon. Like Castlevania, the film depicts both monster- and human-wrought violence in a manner that is grisly and shocking, underlining that life is cheap and death can be sudden. For seasoned fans of adult-oriented anime, it will be familiar territory, but if the prospect of watching screaming children being torn apart by giant mutant cockroaches gives you pause, consider this your content warning.

Rating: B-

The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf is now available to stream from Netflix.