Review: Dungeons & Dragons – Honor Among Thieves

Dungeons and Dragons movie poster

A fantasy romp not seen in a long time. Constantly entertaining.

Two thieves, Edgin and Holga, go on a quest to reunite Edgin with his family after a long time incarcerated. However, their world is turned upside down as a sinister plot threatens the population of The Sword Coast.

Written and directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the new Dungeons & Dragons movie is being labelled as a “Marvel-like” in tone and action. There is certainly DNA there; both men wrote and directed Spider-Man: Homecoming, which is (some would argue) the last good Marvel movie? But talking about Marvel is a digression. We’ve had 15 years of those movies, which is long enough to forget that this sort of film existed before the MCU.

So what is Dungeons & Dragons, for the uninitiated? It is a “table-top role-playing game” originally written in the 1970s and has seen multiple editions ever since. Players roll dice to determine outcomes, with conversations and fantastical battles happening in “the theatre of the mind”; everything is imagined, with a Games/Dungeon Master controlling and describing the world. It has seen a massive resurgence within the last ten years, and with the game readily accessible, easily played online, and offering a sense of escapism, its popularity only doubled during the Covid-19 lockdown.

If it sounds familiar, there was another film, in the 1990s, with Jeremy Irons as the villain. We don’t… talk about that one.

How is this entry, though?

The Paladin Xenk
Regé-Jean Page fills out the cast as the paladin Xenk.

It is a lot of fun, especially for those that know Dungeons & Dragons. The film goes through a lot. The party that is assembled: Edgin (Chris Pine) Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) Simon (Justice Smith) Doric (Sophia Lillis) go through several locations and many antics during their quest. Cities, underworlds, battlefields, elven sanctuaries. We have dragons, evil wizards, undead, traitors, paladins, arenas, multiple escapes. The action is very frequent, keeping the pacing fast. It doesn’t feel as heavy and lumbered as the Warcraft movie did, for example.

What was most surprising was the character stories. While some of the party (Sophia Lillis’ character) are left wanting, others get a decent emotional setup and payoff. Not something you’d expect from a light swords-and-sorcery affair. Pine and Rodriquez are great together as travelling companions.
That, and the nice use of practical effects. One misgiving the D&D community has over the film is its focus on human characters; D&D parties often involve a mixed party from the lengthy list of races available to play as. But there are background/secondary characters of different races; Dragonborn, Tabaxi (read: cat people), and even Aarakocra (read: bird people), and they aren’t CGI. Madness. But it added a silly goofiness to the world that added to the charm. Overall the visual look of the film is very good. Solid and convincing. There wasn’t a single location “title card” to be seen, or even a opening text scroll overexplaining the world. You just sit back and enjoy it.

For the mechanics of the source material, liberties are taken. But the delightful thing about Dungeons & Dragons as a game, is that no one party of friends play it the same way. The film has its own personality, and it really looks like the cast are having a good time. Ultimately, that is the goal of D&D.

Chris Pine and allies
Are you not entertained?

For flaws, there are minor ones. The aforementioned mechanics and rules being ignored at times will bother some fans. But other issues include a rather awkward scene involving a gnome and a human. The Lord of the Rings films were (deep breath) 22 years ago, and yet here we are with some very bad compositing to make actors look very small next to others. Come on.

The plot was rather standard and predictable. There wasn’t that much interesting cinematography; there was a brief moment where the camera panned up to look down on a dungeon room, like a Dungeons & Dragons map! However, this was the only time the film did this.

Most grievous was the fight scene choreography, which was a mess of flailing arms and clashing of weapons. That said, magic and spellcasting looked very cool and interesting. It was mostly the kinetic, sword-fighting scenes that fell short.

But overall it is a delightful, silly time. Over the last twenty-odd years, we have seen a lot of serious fantasy properties, and a lot of serious blockbusters. Even Marvel can be considered “serious” when the plot is so tenuous and requires homework to track what is happening. It was pleasant to watch a film that knows what it is: a fun adventure film.

Good, genuine performances, good banter (the sort a Dungeons & Dragons party might actually have!) and an exciting pace to keep you invested. A sequel would be greatly appreciated if it could keep the tone this light and the capers engaging.

4 out of 5 stars

Additional Marshmallows: Through an error, we actually saw a subtitled version of the film, but much to our surprise, whenever a magic spell was cast, the subtitles gave the magic school of the spell! Evocation, Divination, etc. This is a very impressive level of detail for the subtitles, and was actually very interesting to see.

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