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Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (2023) April 2nd, 2023

23 years ago I went to the theater and saw the first Dungeons & Dragons movie. I remember only that Marlon Wayans performance felt out of place and I left the theater with an overwhelming confusion. How could anyone like that movie? It’s based on a game? What kind of game could suck enough to inspire a movie that bad?

A decade later I played D&D for the first time and I really fell for it. If you’ve never played and want to understand what playing D&D is like, well it’s like ruining improv with math. If you don’t like improv, math, or immersive storytelling then you’ve got your answer. D&D isn’t for you. For me, the experience of goofing around with friends in a turn based collaborative storytelling exercise completely recovered the Dungeons & Dragons brand from the damage done by the film.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is built different. In the last 20 years nerd culture has completely consumed popular entertainment. Studios don’t have infinite funds and producing wholly original content doesn’t promise returns as large as popular IP projects with a built-in audience. Thirty year old consumers immersed in brand loyalty since infancy belly-up to the Hollywood box-office pew and tithe to the only God to ever loved them back, dopamine.

Unless we see a dramatic paradigm shift in consumerism this cynical model might be cinema’s final form. In the 20 years since Dungeons & Dragons producers have seen Marvel Studios perfect the IP franchise engine. Now they all seek to replicate and brand it with their own licenses. Hasbro owns a number of popular IPs but none as successful in film as the Transformers. That franchise grew up alongside the Marvel model and despite its own failings continues to be profitable. It seems like the pandemic lockdown inspired popularity of Dungeons & Dragons encouraged Hasbro to make it their next hottest property.

Few franchise-starter films based on successful IPs are good, and fewer can recover from the damaged caused by a shitty previous installment. Despite those disadvantage Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves rolls high and created a solid foundation for a new film series. Fingers crossed they’ve ditched the Transformers model.

Spoilers here on out.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves isn’t a critical hit but its highlights do outshine the flaws. For every crummy looking Bradley Cooper there’s a gorgeous gelatinous cube, for every groan worthy joke there’s a Jarnathan, and every time the plot seems thin or generic a fun fan service reference pops out and reminds you the stakes are exceptionally low. Most impressively Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves manages to capture the feeling of playing in a D&D session.

Everyone in the diverse party (cast) gets an arc and most of the adventure is spent planning what’s going to happen before you do it. Mix into that a healthy dose of solid humor that feels like it came right off the table top. There’s a great moment when the cast delves into the Underdark in search of a magical hemet and their paladin guide warns them of an approaching pack of Intellect Devourers. The party is warned these faceless quadrupedal brain-like monsters are attracted to and hunt creatures with high intelligence. In order to escape them the party must be quiet and clear their minds of all high level thinking. The brain dogs trot by completely unaware there are nearby adventurers and continue their search for smart brains to eat. A beat, and Chris Pine says “Well that’s kind of hurtful…” and the adventure continues. Brilliant, I can imagine a Dungeon Master laughing to themselves as they creatively insult their mischievous playgroup. 

Another essential element of dice based role playing adventures like D&D is the chance to completely botch your roll. I’m sure many hack critics wrote “A natural 20” as a jacket quote for the POP commercial, but if you don’t know its a reference to the highest number on a twenty sided die and represents an automatic success then that most introductory of references might be lost on you. Conversely a natural 1 signifies an automatic failure. Both critical rolls regularly occur in a D&D session. It’s the Dungeon Master’s responsibility to imagine how those successes and failures appear in the narrative. The Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves filmmakers successfully depicted the horror of rolling a Nat 1 during a scene where Chris Pine’s character attempts to distract a group of city guards while the rest of the party breaks into a castle but in reality he’s a illusion cast by their sorcerer whose foot catches suddenly in a cobblestone pothole. The illusion slowly melts to the horror of the guards as the sorcerer’s concentration wavers. Unexpected and funny, I can imagine myself in a basement laughing with my friends at this hilariously catastrophic bad luck. 

With scenes like that Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves accomplished what none before it could, making a Dungeons & Dragons movie that doesn’t suck and captures the essence of playing D&D. Like I said earlier, this isn’t a critical hit, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves has flaws and disadvantages but despite what Brennan Lee Mulligan would tell you, its success comes from the greatest magic of all. Love.

Not only love for the granddaddy of all roleplaying games but also love for practical effects. Where film franchises have evolved for the better in the last 20 years practical effects have regressed for the worse in favor of cheaper CGI. Even basic effects like squibs are swapped for cheaper digital plugin effects. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves wouldn’t be possible without liberal use of CGI but the producers should be applauded for taking as many opportunities as they have to include practical effects. Anthropomorphic cats, birds, and dragons who could’ve easily been played by extras wearing ping-pong-ball-suits are instead played by extras wearing ornate creature costumes that must’ve cost a fortune. This inclusion is heartwarming for those of us who’ve grown weary of the glossy CGI fantasy worlds of late and long for the comforting nostalgia of Hensonesque works like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal.

The filmmakers behind Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves obviously love the source material. That love transforms the otherwise cringeworthy fan service into classic moments. Owlbears, Displacer Beasts, and even mimics feel right at home in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, and if you love D&D… you will too. 

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