Official efforts to wrest film and television art from the “Dungeons & Dragons” property have been a fluke.
A 2002 film and sequel disappointed and largely disappeared. And that’s about it, unless one goes back to the early to mid-80s and the very cool animated series “Dungeons & Dragons,” a show whose characters were as colorful as their costumes. Plus, it had charm, thanks in no small part to a tiny unicorn. “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” directed and co-written by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, whose credits include the screenplay for “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” is the latest — and most expensive – an attempt to bring some cinematic respectability to the longstanding brand.
“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” kicked off this year’s South by Southwest Film and Television Festival in Austin, Texas, and will open in theaters on March 31. The film stars Chris Pine as a bard and full-time thief, and seeks to capture the often cheerful yet tense feel of a ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ game. Previously, this was a challenge for Hollywood.
Today, though the fantasy genre and the game itself have seen a resurgence, “Dungeons & Dragons” influences film and television more often than it drives. Check out the recent “Arcane,” the Netflix series based on the video game “League of Legends,” whose debut episode had a cool camaraderie that echoed the magic and stealth of the long-running role-playing game. Even the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies and their quests to save the world with artifacts have felt indebted to the magic of “D&D.”
And that’s to say nothing of the widely popular “real game” videos and podcasts that show people acting out their adventures, including the web series “Critical Role,” which led to the animated series “The Legend of Vox Machina.” “Dungeons & Dragons” remains a powerful and guiding force in pop culture because of its often unpredictable nature and the creativity it invites.
This is because the game lives largely in our imaginations. Its worlds and characters are guides to create and improvise, and this also makes it a challenge to adapt. While the “D&D” brand has had its share of popular books – the original “Dragonlance” titles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman are largely regarded as well, as are many of RA Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels – the world is complex and lives mainly in the heads of its players.
We caught a screening of “Honor Among Thieves” before its SXSW premiere. While a proper review will follow, here are five quick reactions from the film. We aim to be as spoiler-free as possible — and won’t reveal some of the film’s biggest Easter eggs and nods to “D&D” history — but note that there may be some light reveals in the text that follows.
The tone is upbeat and lively: Despite its two-hour runtime, “Honor Among Thieves” is fairly light, moving from quest to quest relatively quickly. Pine as the pure-hearted thief Edgin is in full-on charm mode, and Michelle Rodriguez’s raw barbaric fighter Holga is also often played for laughs. “Honor Among Thieves” isn’t, say, “Game of Thrones” serious, opting for a more family-friendly slant.
The film also makes an attempt to capture the cohesion and friendliness of the game. Often before action sequences there is a moment for Pine to lead a brainstorming session on how best to strategize the battle. As is regularly the case around the “D&D” table, all eyes are on the wizard, in this case Justice Smith’s “so-wizard” Simon, leading Simon at one point to angrily say that he’s tired of thinking that magic can to cure all diseases. And yet magic often saves the day, whether it’s a much-used ‘here and there’ staff, essentially a teleportation item, or Sophia Lillis’ shape-shifting Druid character.
In what feels like a nod to the game and a measure of hand-holding to the audience, when new items or magic are introduced, they are displayed on the screen with rules: here’s how it works, here are its limitations. All that’s missing is a roll, but Edgin and the team often come up with several plans to get out of a pickle to simulate those bad rolls. Fortunately, when a spell is cast, usually someone will announce what it is. Note that tying a rope to a weapon often does not work.
Are there dragons here? Not that many, actually, and we won’t spoil the wildest of the lot. But it felt like a solid 45 to 55 minutes before we got our first glimpse of a dragon. There is also no proper dungeon, although there are caves and we can explore the depths of an arena. But fear not, there are creatures aplenty, and in one floating opening we encounter an aarakocra, a race of humanoid birds, and what appeared to be a very tame humanoid reptile – I’m told a snake-man known as a yuan-ti. aarakocra is particularly well done, even if the character, like many in “Honor Among Thieves,” is used as a punch line for a joke.
There’s a lot more, including a mighty owl, which is what you’d imagine, and, yes, a taxi, and the human cat is as adorable as you’d want it to be. The taxi scene also leads to one of the biggest laughs of the film, thanks to Simon’s attempts to flirt with Doric. One downside – and this is a proper minor spoiler – is that a dragon is used as a stepping stone for a fat joke, and I wish the movie was smarter than that. While I respect the director’s desire to subvert expectations, even with mythical “D&D” characters like dragons, making fun of obesity wasn’t the game.
Ultimately, the downgrade of the dragons allows the displacer beast—a black, panther-like creature with menacing tails extending from its shoulders—to steal the spotlight.
The bad guys, the NPCs. There are some twists and, revealed early on, a villain behind a villain. The final motivations we’ll steer clear of, but note that Hugh Grant’s Forge is played to excessively manipulative lengths. Grant, like Pine, Smith and the entire cast all look like they’re having a blast in the medieval-light costumes, so much so that “D&D” never really gets tense. This is not a criticism, as the filmmakers are looking for a light touch, which allows a moving, late-cinematic moment to surprise.
The plot begins with a dead wife, but the quest for revenge at least allows the film to have multiple characters whose motives aren’t immediately clear. Regé-Jean Page’s Xenk is the one who is met with distrust at first, but fans will know that a Paladin knight ultimately fights for good. Page plays the character with a tight-lipped stoicism that allows him to be the straight man for a number of Pine’s Edgin jokes, but the character felt like a nod to the gamer table. Just when our heroes were feeling overwhelmed, a higher class fighter arrives to help everyone level up. And it leads to a scene clearly inspired by the “Indiana Jones” movies.
Every playgroup is different. One of the most popular “Dungeons & Dragons”-related screen titles is Prime Video’s “The Legend of Vox Machina,” an animated adaptation of an original campaign played by the folks at Critical Role. But just because they both fall under the “D&D” umbrella doesn’t mean they’re comparable — even beyond the inherent differences between a movie and an animated series.
“Vox Machina” is intended for mature audiences, which means it features plenty of profanity, graphic violence and sex. The show manages to capture a level of unpredictability that can only be achieved through the decisions and dice rolls of actually playing the game.
“Honor Among Thieves” aims for the broader appeal of the more family-friendly PG-13. That said, they both channel a similar irreverence for fantasy adventures – and advocate always having a paladin in your party.
Times staff writer Tracy Brown contributed to this story.