Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy changed blockbuster fantasy forever. Nine years after the final installment, The Return of the King, Jackson returned to Middle-earth with a new trilogy based on Tolkien’s earlier story, The Hobbit. Originally, Guillermo del Toro was going to direct this new series of films but circumstances led to Jackson jumping back into the director’s chair. The ordeal was a tough one for Jackson and the resulting films felt more interested in technical wizardry rather than the magic of storytelling.
What does this have to do with the upcoming Warcraft film? As someone who has never played a single second of a Warcraft game, I have been approaching Duncan Jones’ movie from my perspective as a lover of the fantasy genre. Seeing as how The Hobbit trilogy was the last noteworthy example of big budget fantasy at the box office (sorry, The Huntsman: Winter’s War), it’s tough not to compare and contrast the films.
There’s a lot working in Warcraft‘s favor. Even though I’m not a fan of the property, I know that the events in the film will be part of the universe’s official lore. That kind of respect to the fan base and their attachment to this story goes a long way. A big problem with The Hobbit films was how far off they began to veer from the tone of the source material. Jackson’s darker take on Middle-earth felt properly utilized in the Lord of the Rings, but it felt at odds with the simpler story of Bilbo Baggins‘ adventures. Warcraft looks to be faithful to the world that it belongs to.
There’s also the cast; Warcraft has filled its roster with some formidable talent, especially with solid character actors like Clancy Brown and Callum Keith Rennie. There are even two-thirds of Preacher‘s lead characters in Warcraft: Dominic Cooper and Ruth Negga both play prominent roles as King Llane and Lady Taria respectfully. The Hobbit films had a great thing going with Martin Freeman but underutilized him to the point of negligibility. The rest of the cast was a little too melodramatic for the material, and even returning actors like Ian McKellen and Cate Blanchett were either misused or felt unenthused.
But the real comparison comes with the visual effects and style. Warcraft and The Hobbit both feature over-the-top creatures and copious usage of CGI that comes across as cartoony in the extreme. To be fair, this works somewhat to Warcraft‘s advantage; The Hobbit‘s grim aesthetic didn’t mesh with its zany action sequences, but the world of Warcraft features a purposefully fantastical design. There’s an indulgent and almost juvenile joy behind how the characters and realm of Warcraft are designed, and that makes them infinitely more pleasant to gawk at than the drab landscapes of The Hobbit films.
Still, there’s a problem arising with these large scale fantasy films: the inclusion of live-action actors. The motion-captured performances of the orcs in Warcraft look fantastic, but as soon as the humans enter the frame things feel disconnected. Viewing the footage, I kind of wish the movie was solely an animated feature; the style and tone of Warcraft lends itself better to animation. However, I know fans would be upset if a theatrical film was nothing but a two-hour cutscene, so the addition of live-action actors certainly legitimizes the project.
My biggest concern after The Hobbit trilogy is whether Warcraft can use the fantasy genre to tell an interesting story populated with memorable characters. Thankfully, Duncan Jones is handling the screenwriting duty (along with co-writer Charles Leavitt), and he has proven with his debut film Moon that he can craft a compelling tale while never at the sacrifice of strong characters. It’s his involvement that gives me real hope for Warcraft.
Since it’s likely that we won’t be getting a return to the cinematic Middle-earth anytime soon, it’d be nice to see a new fantasy genre film carry the torch. Though Game of Thrones is great for when you want to wade through the shadier parts of fantasy storytelling, a rousing adventure that takes relish in its mythic aesthetic would be most welcome. Here’s hoping that Warcraft can be the high fantasy epic that The Hobbit wasn’t.