Warcraft (2016) Review

Warcraft is the latest adaptation of a video game to film; and, if I’m not mistaken, the first multiplayer-only game to make the transition. That means, rather than a set story that the game provides, Warcraft’s job is to bring the actual “world” of Warcraft to life, and then make its own plot using the game’s existing lore and characters. This isn’t the journey of what would otherwise be the player’s character through the world, it’s a story of the world itself. And while the world is full and rich, the story feels lacking.

The story they come up with is the origin of the endless war between the Orc hoard and the Humans of Azeroth. Led by a powerful mage, Gul’Dan, the Orcs open a gate from their dying world to Azerorth with plans to invade it. Besides numbers and brute strength, the Orcs’ advantage comes from Gul’Dan’s Fel magic, which requires constant living sacrifice to fuel. The Humans, led by King Llane; his knight- Lothar; a runaway apprentice mage- Khadgar; and Medivh, the Guardian – the strongest mage in Azeroth, try to unite the kingdoms to fend off the Orc threat. And a couple of Orcs; Durotan – the chief of a small tribe, and the half human Garona, begin to doubt Gul’Dan, wondering if his Fel magic is the source of the Orcs’ salvation, or the cause of their troubles.

As grand-scale world-building exercise, Warcraft succeeds immensely. Azeroth feels like a big, lived-in magical world full of different races and species of magical folk. Aside from the humans and Orcs, we see dwarfs and elves, and animals like griffins and giant wolves. The architecture is grand and spacious with towering spires and great stone dungeons. Every castle, chamber, or camp feels like a completely unique place with its own history, and the different cultures have their own customs, fashions, and even languages. Costumes and weapons are detailed and polished. The magic is bright and colorful, and the mages draw ruins and read old-looking tomes, and their eyes and hands glow when they’re doing spells. I’m guessing this entire movie was filmed in a bright green cube because of the overwhelming amount of CGI; but that gives Warcraft a playful cartoonish, or more accurately, videogame aesthetic. I know some people will absolutely hate how animated this film looks, especially the backgrounds, but I find endearing. Warcraft feels like a video game, it looks like a fantasy world full of magic, and I appreciate how they seem to be leaning into that instead of trying to make it look more real. In any case, Azeroth certainly pops off the screen like no film since maybe Avatar.

So it’s unfortunate that the rest of the film doesn’t hold up. Part of that is a dissonance of scope. While Azeroth feels huge, the story only concerns itself with a small piece of it. We get hints of things outside the humans and the Orcs, but they’re gone from the story almost as quickly as they’re introduced. And the characters we are introduced to feel flat and archetypal. The Orcs fare a lot better than the humans in this respect, and the film seems to put more effort in making them sympathetic, probably because they’re harder to immediately empathize with. Durotan has the best arc of the ensemble as he wrestles with the idea of betraying his species while balancing the needs of his tribe and his wife and child. He’s the only character that Warcraft successfully builds any pathos for over the arc of his story. Meanwhile, the only human that goes through any meaningful change is Khadgar, but his arc is driven by prophecy, so it’s hard to feel like there’s any real stakes. Every other character is essentially their job; and even the other Orc protagonist, Garona, has her personal arc weighed down by a chemistry-free and barely motivated romantic sub-plot. Warcraft feels at once over-crowded and empty.

The lack of character depth or motivations beyond saving the world really start to hurt the film when the plot throws in heel-turns and sacrifices that have no weight behind them, and don’t make much sense even as they’re explained. The last act of this film almost completely unspools because of it; which is unfortunate, because if you ignore the plot, the film looks and feels big and epic and exciting, and you really just want to like it and lose yourself in the swords and sorcery.

Really, wanting to feel immersed is the biggest thing I took away from Warcraft. Azeroth looks like such a fun world that you wish the film explored more of it instead of rushing from beat-to-beat. Intentional or not, the acting, combined with the simple characters and CGI makes Warcraft really come across as a group of people role-playing fantasy tropes more than anything else, but the dedication to its fantasy world and plot is more endearing than off-putting. Appropriately enough for a video game adaptation, Warcraft feels more like a place you want to play in than a story you want to sit through. In spite of a lack of many of the minimums most films would need in order to tell a good story, I had lots of fun during my brief tour of Azeroth; and if you’re in the mood for two hours of clashing swords and colorful spells, you’ll find something to enjoy as well.

I don’t have kids, but I have a feeling this is the sort of movie that if you take some to, will capture their imaginations and keep them pretending like they are knights and wizards for days after. That’s actually probably the best description I have for Warcraft. It feels like what’s going on in the imagination of a group of kids’ playing pretend with some sticks in a park. It’s the richness of that world and the fun they’re having that matter above any criticisms of plot or character.