This will be a mostly spoiler-free review. I say mostly because you might connect some dots. Don’t worry about it, some twists you’ll see coming a mile away anyway. We’ll get to that.
The Dungeons and Dragons franchise hasn’t always had the greatest success in adaptation for television or film. Anyone who remembers the bad CGI of the early 2000’s movie… I’m very sorry. I hope your therapy is going well. Did you drink enough water today? Hit me up if you need to talk, I’m here for you.
There are many issues with transcribing a tabletop game to film. It’s a balancing act of remaining faithful to core material while still making a cohesive film that appeals to general audiences. For all the success that Marvel has had with that formula, those of us who remember know that once upon a time, Marvel movies were universally terrible and often relegated to bootleg VHS tapes circulated by die-hard fans suffering from a familiar mix of love and repulsion that comprises a nerd’s entire food pyramid.
So when a new D&D movie was announced starring Chris Pine and featuring modern special effects, it was a huge question as to whether or not they were going to successfully learn some of the lessons that Marvel’s film entertainment leviathan has taught us, or if it was doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
And… mostly, it was pretty good.
Ok, so don’t get me wrong, it’s a little weak in some places and there are bits only D&D fans will actually get, but considering where the bar was set and where this movie could have landed, I think they did pretty well.
The cast is fantastic, and watching Hugh Grant play a slimy, con-man character so skin-crawlingly well is a genuine delight. You could almost forget he’s Hugh Grant! I did forget he was Hugh Grant.
The story follows the adventures of a small band of thieves led by Pine’s character, Edgin, who’s out to redeem himself in the eyes of his daughter. He’s been incarcerated for a couple of years after a job went south, and since his daughter’s mother was murdered when she was just a baby, he’s had to rely on a member of his crew to take care of her. This, it turns out, may not have been a great decision.
Things take a twist when a former ally turns out to be a new enemy, and is in league with dark powers that threaten mass destruction and death, which is classic D&D plotting.
It’s mostly a heist movie, with some fun D&D McGuffins and clever use of interesting fantasy concepts. It builds onto the idea of D&D as a story with an ensemble cast, not a single main character with side characters to prop them up. Again, this is a lesson likely learned from Marvel, which has to juggle several big-name characters in a single film and manages to do so fairly well in most respects.
This movie is cheesy, but in all the right ways. It very much feels like watching a filmed version of a D&D campaign in-world where characters have their own wants and agendas, flaws and foibles. But it also has those stock movie moments where someone makes a rallying speech and everyone comes back to put together a new plan in a very Hollywood cliché, scriptwriting 101 way.
There are weird moments, too, like major action sequences for characters that aren’t even part of the main cast. They are visually impressive, but leave one wondering why they’re included. To analogize with playing a game, there’s even a scene where some random character (NPC) comes into the story, is significantly cooler than everyone else, and then after a few scenes leaves the story for no actual good reason. But the characters themselves mock the situation right after, making it feel a little more realistic and relatable, although. Though one wonders if it was even necessary to have them in the story. Maybe it was world-building? It’s kind of sloppy storytelling either way, and I’m not sure it was really needed to progress the plot.
The final fight and the mad scramble leading up to it is utterly delightful madness. It’s visually fantastic, and the character banter is, again, very reminiscent of Marvel.
But Pete, I hear from that one pedant calling from somewhere on the internet, it doesn’t follow the rules! Druids can’t wildshape into magical beasts, and bards can cast spells, and attunement only takes a short rest!
And to you, my fellow gamer, my friend, my comrade and sibling nerd… who cares?
Look, some things aren’t going to translate well to a theatrical production. One of those things is going to be a strict adherence to tabletop rules when one is ultimately writing fiction. As a matter of fact, the best fiction writers delight in breaking rules, even ones of their own devising.
I honestly have a bigger problem with one of the characters being completely ignorant to the fact that they’ve been conned for literal years when they grew up around thieves and con artists, but apparently never picked up the knack to spot the inconsistency in someone’s transparently false story. But while the script probably could have used one more draft, on the whole it wasn’t bad.
Just as a movie, it’s all right. Not spectacular, but the visuals are wonderful and some of the acting is shockingly fantastic. The practical effects were nice to see when they showed up, and really made one feel like we were watching a beloved nostalgic 80’s fantasy movie for a few seconds where they roped in pros like the Jim Henson people to do sentient animals.
There was real effort put into this movie that makes it shine in places where it could easily have fallen flat. And the incorporation of D&D world lore into the movie was a very nice touch that, admittedly, probably has more to do with maintaining the film rights than staying true to the lore, but let’s take what we can get.
There were many expected and welcomed references to current and past D&D culture, such as nods to Critical Role, the old cartoon series from the 80’s, and even poking fun at how some of the spells and mechanics work in-game for quick comedic effect. These were great touches that are much needed, since the fans make the game, quite literally, and after the Open Gaming License debacle, Wizards has a lot of apologizing to do. More on that in a later piece.
Did I like it? Yes. Will everyone? Probably not.
Even D&D players are going to be sharply divided, because honestly, we’re still sharply divided on almost everything except that cats should have darkvision. (I will die on this hill!)
I honestly hope there’s more D&D movies. I don’t know what Hasbro/Wizards have up their sleeves, but all this movie really needed was a tighter script. I feel the tone, characters, acting, visuals, music, and pacing were excellent. They learned most of the right lessons from Marvel, and I do look forward to seeing them take another stab at a blockbuster D&D film. If they do another one, I sincerely hope they branch out and do a different story with different characters showing us another aspect of this big fantastical world.
But it is Hollywood, so I’m expecting more of Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez riffing on each other for two hours.