The Film: 4/5
Folks, I’ll be honest with you…. outside of that brilliant 2006 episode of South Park (you know the one), I know next to nothing about Blizzard Entertainment’s insanely popular MMORPG World of Warcraft. Maybe that puts me in the perfect frame of mind to enjoy the recent $160 million silver screen fantasy-adventure epic from Moon/Source Code director Duncan “Zowie Bowie” Jones that attempted to expand Blizzard’s empire of great fortune into tentpole franchise cinema with decidedly mixed results at the box office and in the court of public opinion.
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy gave fantastic film a swift kick in the ass and established a movie series that could compete with, and occasionally surpass, the Star Wars franchise. Warcraft, whose creators are equally indebted to the Star Wars and Rings screen sagas as well as the multitude of literary and cinematic adventures that inspired them, would seem to be the ideal heir to pick up the ball that Jackson dropped big time with his ill-advised decision to split J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit into three ungainly and bloated movies.
Despite the failure of his labor of love (which went through the usual studio meddling in the years leading up to its release that left it a compromised shell of its former self) to connect with summer movie-going audiences thirsting for the next great big screen rollercoaster ride and jumpstart a new franchise that would yield multiple installments and billions in international box office, Jones certainly gets his take on the Warcraft universe off on some rousingly strong footing.
A fantastic world of magic and mystery, Azeroth finds itself under attack by an invasion of massive savage warriors from a dying world called Orcs who arrived via a portal created by the magic of their leader Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), a warlock with a command over the dreaded “fel”. King Llane (Dominic Cooper), ruler of the Stormwind Kingdom, appoints his top military commander Sir Anduin (Travis Fimmel), along with Medivh (Ben Foster), a “Guardian” with mastery over great and destructive magic, and the young mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), to the task of defending Stormwind from the Orcs while an attempt is made to stop Gul’dan before he can bring even more Orcs through the portal and overwhelm the kingdom’s forces. They get some unexpected help from Garona (Paula Patton), a half-Orc with conflicting loyalties, and Durotan (Toby Kebbell), the Orc chieftain of the Frostwolf Clan who is prepared to defy Gul’dan and fellow chieftain Blackhand (Clancy Brown) for the sake of protecting his people from the destruction of another world at the hands of Gul’dan and the fel.
Cramming at least two films’ worth of story into a two-hour running time, Warcraft manages to get a great deal of world-building accomplished while happily doing away with any trace of pretension and reveling in the absurdity of its multiple premises. Director Jones, clearly bringing much love for the franchise and the fantasy genre in general, gives the material the epic sweep (assisted fantastically by Simon Duggan’s bright and vibrant cinematography) and clear focus it requires and refuses to get bogged down in pointless narrative transgressions. Although the amount of characters and subplots threatens to pile up and leave the viewer helplessly confused from the moment it begins, Jones keeps the action moving furiously and, with the help of co-writer Charles Leavitt (In the Heart of the Sea) and the famous editing skills of Paul Hirsch that contributed to the greatness of the first two Star Wars films and many a Brian DePalma classic, maintains a disciplined control over the humans and creatures populating its busy story. The rousing orchestral score composed by Ramin Djawadi (Iron Man, Pacific Rim) achieves an ideal chest-thumping intensity that the film wraps itself up in like a security blanket, despite the lack of a memorable theme.
A lesser film would have lazily fallen back on a simplistic black & white morality, making the humans the force of good and the Orcs devastatingly evil. But Jones is smart enough to recognize that the Orcs deserve as much sympathy because they too are constructed out of flesh and blood, even though their flesh is of a different color and texture than the humans. Every side has its heroes and monsters, a supremely-appreciated grey area for the narrative to occupy and the various conflicts keep the scenes enriched with potent drama. Jones and Leavitt also provide Warcraft with a healthy dose of humor to prevent things from getting too bleak and joyless, but the humor comes naturally and never feels forced or artificial; I’ll admit to laughing out loud when one of the Orcs tosses a horse during their first confrontation with Llane’s forces. The plot and setting are a hodge-podge of ideas taken from the best sci-fi and fantasy stories in history that the filmmakers are still able to keep relatively fresh and involving with some little imaginative touches of their own.
There isn’t a single weak link among the main cast or the supporting players. The Orc warrior Durotan is realized with a Conan-like majesty through the terrific motion-capture performance from Toby Kebbell (who was also heartbreakingly ferocious as Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), with Travis Fimmel (Vikings) ably playing his human counterpart with a knightly strength and humor. Paula Patton (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) gets one of the film’s better character arcs as the ostracized half-Orc with divided loyalties who yearns for acceptance and she does great with the material she’s given. I was impressed by Ben Foster’s (Hell or High Water) turn as the powerful sorcerer Medivh, likewise with Ben Schnetzer (Snowden) as the inexperienced magic man trying to master his astounding abilities when his people need them the most. Dominic Cooper (Captain America: The First Avenger) makes for a wise and empathetic king, and his Preacher co-star Ruth Negga is good in just a handful of brief scenes as his queen. Daniel Wu (Into the Badlands) is excellent behind many layers of quality FX work as the villainous Gul’dan, while the Kurgan himself, Clancy Brown, is a mighty depraved pleasure to watch as the fierce Orc chieftain Blackhand.
Warcraft is a genuine stunner in high-definition. Presented in full 1080p resolution in the 2.40:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the sumptuous marriage of location shooting and digital effects astounds with its attention to the smallest detail and an appreciation for a lifelike texture in the appearance of the CGI characters. Colors are bright and gorgeous to behold. The default soundtrack option is an English Dolby Atmos track that is also encoded to play as a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 track if your home viewing set-up is not compatible with the Atmos technology. Regardless of how it reads on your Blu-ray player, the track is a veritable feast of thundering mounts, clashing weaponry, and punches that could bring down the highest battlement. The people responsible for the film’s audio mix have created an immersive soundscape that comes to life marvelously at home. Alternate audio options are provided in the form of Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks. There is also a Descriptive Video Service feature in Dolby Digital 2.0 audio and subtitles in English, Espanol, and French.
Director Jones doesn’t appear for a commentary track as he did for Moon and Source Code’s Blu-ray releases, but there are enough bonus features here to satisfy the hardcore initiated and newcomers to the Warcraft universe alike, even though they’re heavily promotional in nature.
The disc opens with upfront previews for Dragonheart 4, Free State of Jones, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, and Universal Studios Hollywood’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction. Supplements related to the film kick off with eleven deleted and extended scenes (14 minutes) that you catch watch individually or all at once. Some of the cut footage adds a little bit of meat to the pared-down narrative, but the deletion of the rest is justified. You might get a few hearty laughs out of the brief gag reel (3 minutes).
“The World of Warcraft on Film” explores the film’s journey from the games to the silver screen in six parts: “Origin Story” (5 minutes); “The World of Talent” (6 minutes); “The World of VFX” (5 minutes); “Outfitting a World” (6 minutes); “The World of Mo-Cap” (7 minutes); and “The World of Stunts” (5 minutes). “The Fandom of Warcraft” (7 minutes) pays tribute to the games’ devoted followers and their enthusiasm for the franchise. “Warcraft: Bonds of Brotherhood” (54 minutes) is a motion comic with a voice cast broken into five chapters.
“Warcraft: The Madame Tussauds Experience” (7 minutes) documents the creation of an exhibit at the famous wax museum designed as a promotional gimmick for the film. “ILM: Behind the Magic of Warcraft” (3 minutes) shows off the evolution of the digital effects without voiceover or interviews. A teaser for Warcraft made in 2013 (2 minutes) is basically the film’s opening sequence in a somewhat extended form and closes out the extras. Universal has also included a DVD copy with a few of the bonus features found on the Blu-ray and a Digital HD download code.
Warcraft may not have deserved to die an agonizing death at the box office here in the U.S., but there was no chance this movie would ever appeal to mass audiences. It’s just too weird, emotional, and earnest to do so, but I’ll take Duncan Jones’ attempt to fire up a new fantasy blockbuster franchise over the Hobbit trilogy any day for its humor and ambition and the crazy sense of fun that makes it a modern-day Krull rather than a new Lord of the Rings. Universal’s Blu-ray justifies the film’s existence with outstanding picture and sound quality and soon worthwhile extra features.