Johnny Angel’s Review of Dungeons & Dragons
[Warning: this review contains slight spoilers, but mostly of predictable developments, and some gratuitous D&D terminology that the author hasn’t bothered to define for the squares]
I didn’t ask much of this movie, and it failed to deliver. I went in with full willingness to suspend disbelief, and tried very hard to let the film sweep me away, but Dungeons & Dragons did nothing to reward my indulgence. It failed as a movie in general, and failed especially as a movie for D&D fans. It barely ever rose above mediocre, even by the generous standards I chose to judge it by.
Justin Whalin, as Ridley, cuts a dashing figure of a swashbuckling rogue when he gets to do something, which isn’t often enough. Mostly, like every other character, he’s a mouthpiece for empty dialogue. We get to see him use the traditional D&D thieving skills – he reads languages, finds traps, picks locks and suprisingly even gets in a devastating backstab, though by D&D rules, he was cheating.
Ridley’s sidekick Snails, played by Marlon Wayans, smacks very much of the sambo characters of another era. He’s cowardly, inept, and never contributes anything worth his share of the XP. I don’t mind him being comic relief, but a better movie would have given him some skills, made him a solid guy you could count on in a pinch. It’s been done before, and audiences respond well. Look at Bull Harris in Howard Hawks’ El Dorado. He amounts to more than the sum of his dagnabits and tarnations – he knows his job and does it well. But Snails is a throwaway character, and the movie does indeed throw him away.
The mage, played by Zoe McLellan, knows two spells – Magic Missle and Dimension Door – and doesn’t bother to cast them often, largely because she doesn’t bother to carry any spell components. However, those of us who play D&D know that neither of these spells actually require material components. McLellan is the love interest for Whalin, though they appear to have fallen in love in a scene that was cut.
Lee Arenberg’s portrayal of a dwarf is exactly what we gamers like a dwarf to be. Scruffy, mean, violent and loud. Unfortunately, he doesn’t do much, doesn’t have many good lines, and could have easily have been cut out of the story altogether.
Kristen Wilson’s elven ranger was appropriately high-tone and laconic, but this unfortunately means that we never get to see any depth to her personality. And her costume is absurd, both because her metal breastplate violates the D&D armor restrictions for rangers, and because under it she appears to be wearing khakis or longjohns or something. She does get to be the love interest for Snails, since she is the only other black person in the movie. Clearly, the human/elf race line is blurry, but the black/white race line is cut in stone.
The Empress Savina is played by Thora Birch, much lauded for her role in the Oscar-winning American Beauty, who delivers the worst performance I’ve ever seen outside of a Billy Jack movie. Everbody in the movie has lousy dialogue, but Thora Birch chokes on hers. To be fair, hers is the worst. But this doesn’t explain or justify her abysmally bad, constipated and simpering delivery. We all know she can act; it’s not clear why she decided not to.
I thought Jeremy Irons’ over-the-top performance as the evil mage Profion was marvelous. He delivers every line with his face quivering, his voice trilling, his fists clenching and flailing, even when there seemed to be no need for it. He was absolutely my favorite character, and if he had been given any good lines at all, he would have stolen the film and set the standards for villians for years to come.
Bruce Payne is the badass evil henchman, who for some unexplained reason has periwinkle lips. He has a strong presence, and makes a decent villain, though he doesn’t actually do anything all that interesting. Yet, he’s more involved in the plot than Irons.
Tom Baker has a cameo, and he does a good job of delivering a bad speech that sounds like it has something to do with the plot, but doesn’t.
Yes, there is a plot. But it’s so confused that to be charitable we have to assume that the original script must have been four times the size of the one that made it to the screen. We seem to be missing a lot of explanation.
Irons tries to create a rod of dragon control, and fails, ruining his scheme to take over the empire and foil Birch’s attempt at enlightened despotism. He needn’t have worried much. The Empress is no Voltaire. She clearly hasn’t thought this through, since no attempt is made to explain how she expects to enforce universal equality in a world where the nobles can all shoot fireballs out of their finger-tips, except that apparently she plans to throw dragons at the problem. She has her own rod of dragon control, which she apparently can’t use yet, until at some point in the movie she suddenly, and without explanation, can.
Because the council of mages, at Irons’ urging, has voted for Birch to give up her rod, the heroes go in search of yet another one, hoping to pull a sly one on the council by allowing the Empress to comply without relinquishing her power. This entire premise is shot to hell when the Empress summons her dragons before the new rod is found, making the entire quest pointless. Yet, the quest continues anyway, though the only thing it can accomplish at this point is to deliver the rod into the hands of the bad guys, which is just what happens. Mother Theresa may have been charitable enough to read this as ironic. I am made of weaker stuff. I took it as sloppy writing.
There are some things D&D fans will like about the film, but a lot more things they won’t. It’s nice that they threw in a beholder, an infamous creature in D&D, but for some reason, it’s being used by humans as some kind of a guard dog. In D&D, it’s beholders who use humans, often as food. The difference between gold and red dragons is never explained (gold dragons are good, red ones are evil), and dragons never seem to be more than snarling brutes, in contrast to the deviously hyper-intelligent spellcasters gamers know them to be. Their breath weapons come in short bursts of fire, rather than the streaming cones described in the Monster Manual. I could point out more, but you get the point. They didn’t try very hard to get it right.
Although there were action sequences in the movie that I enjoyed, nothing particularly interesting happens until the second act, and even then the story fails to gather any momentum. If the movie had been distilled down to the perhaps thirty minutes of battling dragons, swinging blades and magic swords clashing, the story would have made just as much sense and would have been a treat to see. As a bonus, I wouldn’t have had to sit through the Birch’s blubbering speeches, which were embarassingly bad attempts at social commentary and courtly intrigue. But the good stuff doesn’t make up for the bad stuff. Not nearly.
Even with all the things I liked about the film, the dungeon crawling and the dwarf hollering and the atmospheric set design and computer-generated architecture and the (usually) decent costuming, I cannot in good conscience recommend this film to anyone at all, not at full price. If you’re curious, go and see it when it comes around to the El Cheapo, or wait until it comes out on video and give it the MST3K treatment. Just don’t expect it to be worth the money. I’d like to support the production of D&D movies, but I sure don’t want to send the message that this is what gamers are looking for.
Conan the Barbarian still remains the closest thing to a D&D movie ever made.