Warcraft lays an enticing foundation for future installments in the fantasy-adventure series - at the expense of its current cast and story.
Powered by the "Fel", a malevolent fuel source harnessed from the living at death, orcish sorcerer Gul'dan (Daniel Wu) corrupted many of his fellow Orcs - turning the once virtuous tribal society into a violent army known as the "Horde." After consuming all life on the Orc home world of Draenor, Gul'dan opens an inter-dimensional portal to Azeroth - a world where humans, elves, and dwarves all live in peace. Unable to bring the full Horde army through the portal, Gul'dan mounts a ruthless campaign against nearby human settlements, tasking the Orcs with murdering, destroying, and taking prisoners to bolster the Fel - so that Gul'dan can re-open the gate and bring the rest of his Horde into Azeroth.
Sensing that Gul'dan's invasion is part of a larger threat, inexperienced mage, Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), begins investigating corrosive effects of the Fel - persuading human knight, Sir Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), and his king, King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper) to request aid from Medivh (Ben Foster), the Guardian of Trisfal, a wise and powerful magic wielder. As the humans prepare for war, an exiled tribe of orcs, lead by their noble chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell) and aided by a half-breed of unknown ancestry, Garona Halforcen (Paula Patton), break from Gul'dan in hopes of brokering peace between the people of Draenor and Azeroth.
From cult-favorite filmmaker Duncan Jones (Moon and Source Code), Warcraft is the first installment in Blizzard Entertainment's presumptive fantasy franchise based on the Warcraft video game series (which includes mega-popular MMO World of Warcraft). Like many tentpole action movies, Warcraft lays an enticing foundation for future installments in the fantasy-adventure series - at the expense of its current cast and story. Where casual filmgoers will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of characters and plot beats that Jones packs in, fans of the game series (and fantasy films in general) should find that, as the sum of its unwieldy parts, Warcraft is amusing, at least.
Even for die-hards who already know which Warcraft cast members will become iconic players in sequel stories, there are a number of characters and scenes that are underserved by the production - and do not live up to their importance within the source material. Where similar fantasy tales manage to balance epic battles, rich world building, and relatable drama, Warcraft never fully succeeds in any one piece, much less as a nuanced blend of all three. Jones is most effective in establishing a live-action Warcraft sandbox - but, despite loads of rich backstory, diverse races, and compelling personalities in Warcraft lore, the 2016 movie is too limited in its scope (borrowing its narrative from early in Azeroth's fictional history). The film takes viewers to a variety of locales and briefly introduces intriguing individuals, clans, and creatures that will be explored down the line - but does little with them in the present story.
Jones keeps his focus narrow - centering on six main characters joined by interconnecting relationships and motivations. The goal is clear: capture as many different perspectives on the war as possible - in an effort to ensure that, like the game itself, there are heroes and villains on both sides of the conflict. Yet, attempting to develop and service so many viewpoints, not to mention established characters, only ensures that no one person or thematic through-line is fleshed-out. Friendships come easy, romance is forced, sacrifices fall flat, and twists carry little emotional weight - most attempts to expand on fantasy tropes, and opportunities that could have drawn non-Warcraft players into the story, only move the plot (rather than the characters) forward.
Toby Kebbell's Durotan, orcish chieftain of the Frostwolf Clan, is afforded the most nuance - as well as some genuinely endearing personal moments with his wife, Draka (Anna Galvin), and second-in-command, Orgrim Doomhammer (Robert Kazinsky). As the plot progresses, subtle character drama takes a back seat to pre-set franchise building, and Durotan becomes a lens through which viewers become aware of conflict within the Horde, rather than a unique or memorable fantasy hero, himself. Similarly, Garona Halforcen (Paula Patton) is given chances to differentiate her character from similar fantasy protagonists - characters who were, for one reason or another, rejected by their own people. A poignant scene between the half-orc warrior and the brave but kind Stormwind queen, Lady Taria Wrynn (Ruth Nega), is a keen example of what Warcraft can accomplish, when Jones takes enough time to relish in smaller interactions (not just CGI mayhem).
Nevertheless, the rest of the main cast, Stormwind knight Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), spellcaster Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), orcish warchief Blackhand (Clancy Brown) and warlock Gul'dan (Daniel Wu), as well as Azeroth guardian Medivh (Ben Foster) are all serviceable in both function and performance (whether motion capture or live-action) but are also confined to familiar genre tropes. Even in the face of trauma and tragedy, few of these characters are provided a truly affecting payoff; instead, they are cogs in a machine with one primary focus above all else: construct a Warcraft film world.
What Warcraft lacks in coherent character development and standalone narrative it makes up for in visual spectacle. Most locations suffer from Phantom Menace-like green screen backdrops but the inhabitants of Azeroth are a different story - both in terms of how realistic the CGI characters appear as well as how Jones and his team conceptualized fantasy elements for live action. Spellcasting in Warcraft is especially slick and, conversely, the director delivers an orc Horde that is both emotive (whether good or evil) and physically intimidating. As a result, action is satisfying enough, even if the actual set pieces are compiled from quick hero moments, rather than a particularly inspired or complex mix of choreographed fighting that moves around the battle. Still, Jones manages to capture a fitting scale for the battle between a pair of human and orc armies - one that is worthy of a 3D ticket (though 3D is not essential for viewers who are on the fence).
In a world (of Warcraft) that is pre-packed with ripe mythology and imaginative characters, Duncan Jones has produced a pretty bland fantasy experience. Like most big budget franchise debuts, Warcraft is sure to be divisive - given that fans will find plenty to enjoy. Ultimately, Warcraft isn't bad, even if it often underwhelms, but is still hard to recommend for anyone outside of game series fans and fantasy genre faithfuls. As an entry in the video game-to-movie sub-genre, Warcraft is a minor step up, setting a new (albeit low) bar - especially when it comes to effects-driven spectacle. Yet, in laying the groundwork for a new tentpole franchise, Jones came up short in the most important lesson of adapting a popular property to film: tell a rousing story that will engage all viewers, fans and non-fans alike. Future installments have fertile ground on which to build but, even if Jones pleases established fans, Warcraft leaves a lot of room for improvement - if Blizzard Entertainment hopes to bridge the divide between game players and moviegoers longterm.
Warcraft runs 123 minutes and is Rated PG - 13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy violence. Now playing in regular and 3D theaters.
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