Cartoonish game adaptation ‘Warcraft’ will be a niche-pleaser at best

Cartoonish game adaptation ‘Warcraft’ will be a niche-pleaser at best
Josh Terry, Deseret News

“WARCRAFT” — 2 stars — Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Daniel Wu, Clancy Brown; PG-13 (extended sequences of intense fantasy violence); in general release

“Warcraft” is based on the popular video game “World of Warcraft,” which means that reactions to the movie should fall into two distinct camps. Those unfamiliar with the game will feel like they are watching a B-movie version of “The Lord of the Rings,” and those familiar with the game will resent any comparisons to Tolkein’s fantasy standard.

Watching “Warcraft” feels like eating a Chicago deep-dish pizza you bought at the grocery store. It might be a perfectly good pizza, but if you’ve eaten the real thing, it kind of ruins everything else.

The movie is built on basic conflict between men and Orcs — in this case, Orcs being CGI monsters with huge hands and tiny heads that mostly look like variations of the Incredible Hulk.

The premise is simple: The world of the Orcs is a wasteland, and they want a new one. Led by Gul’dan (voiced by Daniel Wu), a nasty Orc with a knack for a green-colored magic that can strip the souls out of lesser beings, they plan to cross an interdimensional portal into the world of men, which they will conquest.

Mankind has been living in a state of relative peace with dwarves and elves but must gear up for battle when the first wave of Orcs crosses over and starts sacking villages. The men are led by Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), whose sister, Lady Taria (Ruth Negga), is queen to King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper). Lothar is also assisted by Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), who was training to be part of a magic brotherhood called the Kirin Tor until he washed out.

Their opposition isn’t exactly a unified front. An Orc chieftain named Durotan (voiced by Toby Kebbell) has just become a new father, and his newfound perspective is contributing to his suspicions that Gul’dan is leading his people to their destruction. Elsewhere, a prisoner named Garona (Paula Patton) also harbors conflicted loyalties.

“Warcraft’s” story is unique, but the way it mines traditional fantasy character types evokes similarities to “Lord of the Rings” that are difficult to ignore. Aside from the men and the Orcs and the dwarves, the good guys even have a token wizard (Medivh, played by Ben Foster) fighting for them, and the inevitable comparisons leave “Warcraft” coming up short.

Director Duncan Jones (2009’s “Moon”) has made a noble attempt to fashion a cinematic world of his own, but his characters lack the depth and substance to give the film any gravitas. As a result, moments designed to evoke dramatic emotion fall short, and he has a tendency — like many filmmakers in the genre — to substitute a lot of unexplained magic light shows for plot and logic.

There’s also the issue of the animation style. While it appears that there is plenty of talent behind “Warcraft’s” production, there seems to be a deliberate cartoonish quality to many of the characters. Presumably the style is intended to reflect the film’s source material, as are the periodic scenes where the main characters gather around what looks like a three-dimensional game board to plan their strategies. But the style undermines the film’s impact and acts as a glass ceiling that confines “Warcraft” as a narrow genre piece.

The sum total, then, is a niche product that won’t carry much appeal for anyone outside of the existing fan base. At best, it’s a piece of mindless fun. At worst, it’s a mediocre B-movie on a blockbuster budget. The people behind “Warcraft” should just hope their niche audience is enough to justify the sequel the film explicitly promotes at its end credits.

“Warcraft” is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy violence; running time: 123 minutes.

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