Dungeons & Dragons in cinemas: Brilliant nonsense

For decades, the “pen & paper” role-playing game “Dungeons & Dragons” was almost exclusively the domain of dreamy nerds. They met, more or less disguised, by candlelight, drank mead, threw multi-sided dice and together experienced the fantasy adventures that they had been carrying around in their heads since the first time they read “The Lord of the Rings”. That all changed in the late ’90s when video games like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Neverwinter Nights brought the D&D rulebook to PC without the dice and complicated rules, opening up the Sword Coast to a whole new generation of gamers. At the latest since the streaming sensation “Critical Role”, Dungeons & Dragons has even become cool and one could almost say that D&D has arrived in the mainstream. In Germany, the American “Pen & Paper” role-playing game is even in the process of replacing the game system “The Black Eye”, which has actually been more popular in Germany to date.

The producers in Hollywood have probably noticed that too and are now trying, almost 50 years after the release of the first D&D edition, to bring the time-honored role-playing franchise to the cinema again after a first attempt in 2000 flopped. The new film – ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves’ – has met with some skepticism from fans from the start, especially given the actors involved, who are more in keeping with D&D’s cool new image than what many old- school fans had introduced. Can a movie like this please the nerds and regular moviegoers who just want to see a fun action movie at the same time? We shed light on this daring experiment and try to judge who, if anyone, should see this film.

A notice: The following review is spoiler-free as far as possible.

At first glance, one would think it almost impossible that one and the same film could satisfy both D&D nerds and regular action fans. However, “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” manages to link elements for both target groups from the first scene. The story is less epic than one might expect from the source material and initially focuses more on the personal history of the two main characters. A demonic threat that gives the heroes an opportunity to save the world also plays a role, but it only gradually becomes important towards the end of the film – and the personal drama of the characters always remains in the foreground, as it should be a good role-playing experience belongs.

The film amazingly manages to evoke the feelings that D&D players have while playing at their living room table. The screenwriters succeed by skilfully basing their story on a typical D&D adventure: A ragtag crew of heroes, each with their own flaws and weaknesses, embark on an almost impossible mission – and then almost everything that can go wrong goes wrong . And of course, each of the characters approaches the subject with different motivations. The story we experience in this film could also have come from a domestic D&D kitchen table campaign and that is the greatest strength of this film. In many situations, he gives viewers who play D&D themselves the feeling that they have experienced something similar before. The film has a few distinct moments where one of the characters clearly rolled a natural 1 or a natural 20. And once or twice you think: “Oh, now the dungeon master wanted to know!”

This reference to a domestic D&D campaign, as opposed to a more typical story that might appear in a D&D computer game, is also the film’s greatest weakness. Some scenes, and also parts of the background story, are completely implausible nonsense. After all, D&D is a game that aims to give the player a feeling of heroism, while letting realism take a back seat. But what works in a social gathering among friends is far from being the script for a successful blockbuster. In the home round, you forgive the game master if he just conjures up a legendary magical artefact or drastically shortens distances that would actually entail months of burdened travel under a flimsy pretext. In a film, it all seems much less believable.

We’re not talking about magical abilities, unbelievable locations or outlandish monsters – these are part of every fantasy story and the viewer embraces them the moment he or she enters the theater. But there are things that, even within the internal logic of a world, no matter how fantastic, are far-fetched or even absolute nonsense. In a D&D round with friends you laugh about something like that and ignore it, but in the cinema it takes a lot of good will to integrate such occurrences into your own beliefs in the fantasy world shown. D&D players will find this easier to do in this film, as they’re already used to WTF moments like this from their own campaigns. The average moviegoer needs a little more goodwill. Nonetheless, viewers who saw this film with us and hadn’t even heard of D&D before did so too.

One reason why this movie works for regular action and fantasy fans is because of its cast. Chris Pine and Michelle Rodríguez cut a good figure throughout and portray their character classes as Bard and Barbarian very believably. Chris Pine may be a bit short on singing, especially considering the man’s obvious talent in that direction, but Rodríguez definitely strikes the right balance of silent stoicism and unbridled rage. We also liked Sophia Lillis as the deepling druid who steals the show with her animal forms in several scenes. Special mention goes to Regé-Jean Page, who embodies the honey-dripping paladin almost too well. His character is so repellently good and self-righteous that every D&D player will immediately be reminded of the odd annoying paladin from a past game round.

Hugh Grant was a big surprise. Before Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, if someone had told us that Hugh Grant would star in a D&D movie and fit into it like a glove, we would have laughed out loud. But it’s true: Hugh Grant has a role in this film that is just as well tailored to him as the opulent costume and he convinces in every way. It’s the cast that makes this film fit for the mainstream. The actors manage to portray their D&D characters according to the source material without being overdone or ridiculous. This is an impressive achievement that should not be underestimated. The only thing that would have made this cast better would have been if it had included The Rock, Vin Diesel, Judi Dench, or Karl Urban – all of these acting stars are self-confessed D&D players.

“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” makes some obvious concessions to recent Wizards of the Coast background material, which the D&D makers have used to attempt to rid the role-playing world of some fantasy biases and open it up to a wider audience . This ties in with Hollywood’s renewed fixation on more equal and inclusive casts, and in this film ensures that the baber class is represented by a woman and the character of Chris Pine has a mixed-race daughter. We also meet several dark-skinned representatives of the elves and half-elves, including the great-great-grandson of the legendary D&D wizard Elminster Aumar. In contrast to many other current Hollywood products, however, these casting decisions do not seem forced and fit seamlessly into a world in which felines, intelligent bird races and halflings also roam. All in all, this film is a good example of how you can cast such an adventure film without prejudice, without coming across as embarrassing.

Anyone who has never heard of Dungeons & Dragons and likes to experience fantasy action is well served with “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves”. On the condition that it’s mostly about having fun and that you can sympathetically overlook the odd twisted or flimsy plot aspect. This film isn’t for real fantasy nerds or people who prefer hard fantasy à la “Game of Thrones”.

Unless, of course, you’re a D&D nerd. Then you get a lot on offer. Including legendary monsters like the Gelatinous Cube, the Mimic Treasure Chest, the Intellect Devourer and a few others. Of course, a dragon must not be missing either. Although the screenwriters managed to make the dragon featured here quite remarkable – for which they definitely deserve bonus points. Since the film takes place in the well-known Forgotten Realms setting, almost all D&D players and many video game veterans will immediately recognize the famous Sword Coast, the city of Neverwinter and the Underdark, which in turn brings with it a lot of nostalgia. Either way, D&D fans will get their money’s worth.

A good acting performance by the entire cast and useful to good dialogues round off the overall package. One shouldn’t expect anything great, but overall – and in many of the individual aspects mentioned – “Honoring Men” surpasses much that has been produced in the fantasy genre by Hollywood in recent years. And it’s something new, given all the comic book adaptations, anyway. In closing, I can only reiterate how surprising it is that this film manages to please both die-hard D&D gamers and regular moviegoers alike. When we went to the cinema, both groups obviously enjoyed the film.

“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” is currently in German cinemas. For our review, we saw the film in its original language.


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