A game try
Guest Review by Steve Sullivan
In the interest of full disclosure, let me say I’ve been working on Dungeons & Dragons related products for over 20 years. I was hired onto TSR’s staff in 1980 and worked on the version of the game that soon swept to worldwide prominence. The edition out this year is, so far as I know, the only revision since then in which I don’t have a credit line. (Which is not to say that the current edition is a bad game, I just didn’t happen to work on it.)
Despite my long familiarity with the game, and despite having written four books for the publisher (WOTC — which bought TSR, which originated the game), I went into the film knowing virtually nothing about it. I’d seen a big dragon skeleton mock-up at a convention this past year, I’d seen a few trailers and ads, but that was about it. I caught the film in a theater in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin — the birthplace of the game — along with a couple dozen friends who had either worked on D&D or were long-time players of the game. Some (like my wife) liked the film a lot, others hated it. Me, I fall somewhere in the middle.
Dungeons & Dragons is the story of young Empress Savina (Thora Birch) who has the awesome power to control golden dragons. She also has the desire to remake her wizardly kingdom into a land where all people are free and equal. Pitted against her is evil magician Profion (Jeremy Irons), who is determined to both stop her and to take the kingdom for his own. Assisting Profion in this task is Damodar (Bruce Payne), an evil warrior with unaccountably blue lips.
Though the Empress never really gets out of the palace (spending all her time speechifying to a conservative Wizard Council within the city), she has allies fighting for her — though some of them do so unwittingly. Chief among them are Ridley, a thief (Justin Whalin), his sidekick, Snails (Marlon Wayans), and Marina (Zoe McClellan) a young, bespectacled sorceress. This trio, a dwarf (Lee Arenberg) and an elf (Kristen Wilson) are all that stand between the kingdom and destruction. This fairly-standard gaming party (Wizard, Fighter-Dwarf, Thieves, Elf) set off on a quest to recover an artifact that will help keep the kingdom safe in case the Wizard Council forces the Empress to give up her dragon-controlling staff. Clear?
Well, not really. The story of the movie is set up like the plots of too many mediocre role-playing games that I’ve seen over the years. It also bears more than a passing resemblance to Star Wars (Episode 4). Watch for: the cantina scene, the Vader tortures the princess (sorceress) scene, the hero & heroine talk in the Ewok tree-top village set piece, the big aerial battle at the end, and many others bits that’ll make you feel the Force is with you. The music even plays this up, giving Damodar a leitmotif resembling Darth Vader’s march. I found the resemblances simultaneously annoying and amusing.
The acting varies wildly. Irons chews scenery with abandon, but without enough glee. Whalin (Jimmy Olsen from TV’s Lois & Clark) is quite compelling as the hero, as is McClellan as the sorceress (who seems very similar to the librarian character in the recent Mummy remake). Unfortunately, most of their “heartfelt” scenes together are cliché-riddled and poorly written. Still, Whalin and McClellan do what they can with their parts. So does Payne, whom the writers portray inconsistently as both a Darth Vader clone and a “nice enough” guy who’s being forced to do evil. (Hmm. Maybe that is just a Vader clone.)
Sadly, the Wayans character — Snails — is little more than a cliché of a bumbling darkie thief. I often found myself cringing at what seemed to me a blatantly racist portrayal. (Just missing the watermelon and stolen fried chicken.) I wish Snails wasn’t the only black male in the cast, perhaps then the character’s bug-eyed humor wouldn’t have bothered me so much. Wayans does what he can with the part, but he would have been better off taking Robert Townsend’s advice from Hollywood Shuffle, “There’s always work at the Post Office.”
Arenberg and Wilson are fine as the grubby dwarf and the tough elf warrior (respectively). Birch, however, is terrible as the Empress. Her performance makes Natalie Portman’s work in Star Wars (Episode 1) look like high art. Birch is so wooden that I utterly failed to recognize her as the young actress I’d enjoyed so much in American Beauty (which I’d seen only two weeks earlier).
A final and, to me, highly annoying point is that nowhere in the film is any credit given to Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, who created the original game nearly three decades ago. (Though Arneson does have a cameo in the Wizard’s Council.) Even the X-Men credited Lee & Kirby (though Marvel — so far as I know — still doesn’t pay royalties to the creators of their classic characters). No sop like that here, though. If you believe the end credits, Wizards of the Coast created the game.
So, where’s the fun in this picture? I hear you ask. Well, it’s got great production design and good special effects. There’s a huge CGI dragon battle at the end that wouldn’t have been possible if this film had been made at the height of the game’s popularity. It’s a better film than knock-offs such as Krull, Sword & the Sorcerer, and Beast Master (all of which were made in the 80s to cash in on the D&D craze). Somehow, despite its serious flaws, Dungeons & Dragons is rather fun.
It also has a fine, gleeful performance by Richard O’Brien (Riff from the Rocky Horror Picture Show) as the king of thieves. The scenes in the thieves’ den were the best in the movie for me. Tom Baker (Dr. Who, and the evil wizard in Golden Voyage of Sinbad) also turns in a nice, understated bit as the Elf king. Unfortunately, neither he nor O’Brien are on screen for very long.
Kids will probably like all the flash and bang, the gorgeous costumes and sets, and the goofy fun of it. Me? I enjoyed it, though I wish they had a better script and a better director. I give it 2 Stars (out of 5), though it just missed getting 3. If you like the game, you might like this flick. Just don’t expect to take it very seriously. The end of the movie sets up for an apparent sequel. Whether that film will be made, and whether it’ll be better than this one is anyone’s guess.
Perhaps, though, Dungeons & Dragons has potential as a late-night cult feature, like Rocky Horror. There were a number of times during the showing when my friends and I had to resist talking back to the screen, and several points where we just couldn’t help ourselves. When you see the film, try to find the spot where four of us sitting in a row simultaneously said, “To grandmother’s house we go!”
Finally, to top this review off, I asked the game’s co-creator, Gary Gygax, to provide us with his opinion. Gary says: “Irons’ acting, and that by the dwarf, were at least as questionable as the portrayal of the Empress by the gal who went to the Shatner School of Acting.
“Happy to say, I liked the film. It was a good Grade B movie, fun despite all the defects, and I’d rate it a solid 2 stars out of 4 — which means I’ll see it another time without a qualm, and likely enjoy it even more than I did the first time. (I rate Alien at 4 stars — saw it eight times.)
“Despite the apparent minuses of the production, the overall effect of the less-than-good-parts is a film that is greater, better, that it should be. In short, the enjoyment factor of the movie, D&D buffs aside, is higher than credited in other reviews.” (Or in my review above, Gary adds.)
See Steve’s other reviews here.