There are no dragons, but there are spoilers in the following review.
Fantasy films are tough. Really, really tough. If you think about the last decent fantasy flick — of the swords, dark lords and medieval societies type — you're probably looking at The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers. And prior to that … Beastmaster? Excalibur? Some might consider those guilty pleasures or fun for nostalgia sake; though it could be argued both movies actually succeed in their ambitions.
Warcraft, opening tomorrow, has very big ambitions. Based on the twenty-year-old gaming franchise, the film attempts to tell the tale of mankind's first meeting with the Orc Horde. But does so via a surprising number of characters and subplots.
In a previous era, the film would be about Lothar (Travis Fimmel), a captain of the city-state known as Stormwind and a close friend of King Llane (Dominic Cooper). He resembles a traditional fantasy hero. He's good in combat, but emotionally closed off from losing his wife in childbirth twenty years earlier. He is also protective of his son, now also in the Stormwind army.
But the film could also be about Durotan (Toby Kebbell), a proud Orc chieftan going along to get along as his world dies and the Orc shaman Gul'dan offers a portal to the land of humans known as Azeroth. Durotan becomes increasingly suspicious about Gul'dan's magic, which may have been the cause of his world's decay.
Then again, the film could be about Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), an oathbreaking mage who begins to suspect the new enemy in the world may be using a very specific form of magic. Of course, no one will listen to him because he's little more than a boy with very soft lips.
Yet still, it could be about Garona (Paula Patton), a half-Orc captive forced through the portal by her cruel master. Freed of her chains by Lothar and welcomed into the king's inner circle, she finds the human way appealing despite deeply ingrained Orc traditions.
Or it could be about Medivh (Ben Foster) a mage chosen to be "the Guardian" of the world. Once close friends with Lothar and the King, his studies into a rarely seen form of magic have closed him off to all but his loyal assistant. He's also spent the last few years carving a golem, growing a beard and becoming a weird recluse.
But it could also be about Cooper's King Llane, a wise and seasoned monarch concerned with the protection of his kingdom, the surrounding countryside and his best friends. While he tries to wear the crown with a noble heart, the immediate Orc threat leads him into some ill-advised choices.
With all of these characters and plots in play, the film lacks focus. Though I've never played a Warcraft game, I have enjoyed a few MMOs and the experience of this film is not unlike accumulating a series of side-quests and forgetting about the epic chain. All have interesting components, but become part of a mish-mash in which the seeming central conflict — the Horde invasion — takes a surprising backseat even as people talk about it frequently.
And that's unfortunate as there is a lot of care and talent on screen.
Patton is surprisingly good as Garona. Working with partial orc teeth and green skin, she is the member of the cast most at-home in the world of Warcraft. Her story also offers the most interesting internal and external conflicts and the most interesting arc. Being neither Orc nor human, she also offers an insight into both worlds the other characters cannot provide. If the film had focused on her, it would be a lot more effective.
Other performers, like Cooper, Fimmel and Schnetzer are also fine, with Cooper being, perhaps, the least at ease in the costumes of Azeroth. But scenes between Fimmel and Schnetzer suggest a more naturalistic friendship forming between the two unlikely compatriots. As with Patton's Garona, it's a shame the movie lacks the time to develop it fully.
Also: Foster commits to being a magical weirdo in the vein of Nicol Williamson's Merlin in Excalibur. But again, the lack of focus means he is absent for large sections of the film.
On the technical side, Azeroth is a beautiful landscape with astonishing detail and settings. Everyone involved in the art direction deserves massive amounts of credit for giving the world such presence. But like the characters, the breadth of story does not allow for all of the settings to be used effectively.
A good number of the battles take place in open, empty landscapes or in between cliffs and are jarring in their sparseness when compared to, say, Stormwind itself or the lush forests glimpsed early in the film. Likely a consequence of shooting the battles on soundstage, though that limitation is only really damningly apparent during a fight in the middle of the film in which Lothar's son is killed. The fight lacks tension and that death illustrates a real problem with Warcraft's ambitions: the characters get lost in the proceedings and nothing feels important.
In a film with so much going on, there is no time to develop the relationship between these characters and, consequently, it is impossible to mourn for what is essentially an underdeveloped NPC or empathize with Lothar's grief. Despite the beginnings of a charming character in his conversations with Khadgar and Garona, Lothar is still not the one the viewer empathizes with by the time this sequence happens. In fact, none of the characters are and other deaths later in the film also lack impact for the same reason.
At the same time, it is difficult to dismiss Warcraft as simply a bad movie. It is well realized and, on the whole, well performed. It is also obvious director Duncan Jones and writers Charles Leavitt and Chris Metzen care deeply for its world and wanted to share it. But that is what sinks the film in the end. There's just too much introduced without a strong throughline to keep the viewer engaged. Ultimately, the film is crushed under the weight of all the things it wants to show you and is a maddening experience for all the interesting elements it teases.