Dungeons & Dragons is arguably the most popular and the most successful roleplaying game since its creation by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974. It stands to reason that it could spawn a seemingly lucrative franchise of films in the vein of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But alas, adapting a game that can be about anything has proven to be quite challenging and the one feature film that did get a theatrical release was a critical and commercial failure. A resurgence in the game’s popularity over the last several years have resulted in another opportunity to bring it to life on the big screen. So it is that Paramount Pictures have released Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.
After being betrayed by rogue con artist Forge Fitzwilliam, widowed bard Edgin Darvis and his barbarian companion Holga Kilgore plan to get back at their former associate and reclaim Darvis’ daughter Kira. Fitzwilliam has become Lord of Neverwinter and he’s bringing back a popular, yet controversial event with high-stakes betting that will fill his vaults with riches beyond imagination. The ideal target for a heist. Darvis and Kilgore enlist the aid of half-elven sorcerer Simon Aumar and tiefling druid Doric. But in the background is Sofina, a red wizard setting a nefarious plot into motion that leaves the group having to deal with more than just breaking into a heavily guarded vault.
One of the biggest hurdles in adapting Dungeons & Dragons into a film is that there is no one plot to be based off of. It’s generally up to the players to create their stories and how they would play out. Supplemental material have been released over the years offering pre-made content, from world settings to adventure ideas, for players to use. As such, there’s numerous options to choose in developing a film. For Honor Among Thieves, Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley went with telling an original story and based it within a popular setting called The Forgotten Realms. This has helped settle on a nice mixture of options for the presentation.
Most stories within the fantasy genre tend toward an eventual “saving the world” plot. To have Honor Among Thieves be more unique, the filmmakers instead are telling a heist that happens to be set within a fantasy world. This allows for emphasis to be on developing the characters and less on spending time having to flesh out the world when it is unnecessary to do so. If there’s any lore to be told, it’s because it’s something that will benefit the characters. Thus there is a purpose to the group spending time learning about and trying to locate a magical item called the Helmet of Disjunction as it will help Aumar break the powerful enchantments placed upon the vaults.
Another big hurdle has been how to portray the game’s mechanics and spirit. The mechanics is perhaps the hardest at bringing to life as much of how things work are not visual. This led the previous feature film to make spell casting inaccurate to how they’re done in the game so that it could be apparent on screen that such is happening. Honor Among Thieves is interested in the mechanics and figures ways to showcase them with delightful results. Aumar possess a token that brings a dead creature back to life. It is alive only long enough to answer five questions, then it is dead for good. What can be a conundrum is that it answers any five questions spoken aloud.
Honor Among Thieves captures the spirit of the game in realizing its key component: fun. More often than not, films in the fantasy genre tend to play with such seriousness that they run the risk of being droll and stiff. The other direction is to spoof the genre, lampooning the troupes to a corny degree. Goldstein and Daley instead looked to find a middle ground in which things are not taken with great seriousness, but it’s not a mockery. This is exemplified with Xenk Yendar, a human paladin the group seek the aid of to find the Helmet of Disjunction. But though they are in awe of his stoic prowess as a true heroic figure, his mannerisms get on their nerves very quickly.
Adding to the fun factor is the wonderful performances by the ensemble cast. Chris Pine captures the charm and occasional vulnerability of Darvis. Michelle Rodriguez hits the right beats playing the tough and warm Kilgore. Hugh Grant perfectly personifies the deliciously despicable Fitzwilliam. Justice Smith works quite well as the neurotic Aumar. Sophia Lillis is lovely as the unpredictably endearing Doric. Regé-Jean Page seems to be made to portray the righteous Yendar. And Daisy Head stands out superbly as the devious Sofina. Often in these films an actor’s presence can overtake the character. Here the whole cast embody their characters very nicely.
What’s also fun are the Easter Eggs fans of the game can discover. They’re utilized in such a way that audiences unfamiliar with Dungeons & Dragons don’t need to feel like it’s something very important, which happens to hilariously be spoofed in the film when Sofina explains in few words how it is the vaults are enchanted to a pair of delegates who just take her for her word. There’s quite an Easter Egg late in the film that’s sure to bring a smile to fans, which I won’t reveal even though clips of it have been shown already. And I was howling over a credited cameo appearance and how it’s done both visually and its part in fleshing out the backstory of one of the characters.
It’s almost a given that Honor Among Thieves would be special effects heavy like the first Dungeons & Dragons film. Whereas the previous film relied on the effects to carry the film, this film uses just enough that they do not hinder the storytelling. A lot of the visual effects animation is done for Doric whenever she uses her wild shape ability to transform into a creature. There’s a fantastic escape sequence that evokes being a single take shot in which she’s changing between herself and into various animals while trying to avoid getting captured. It’s impressive by itself, but made more so because it serves the plot in showing how dangerous the heist is going to be.
The visual effects are used quite well in bringing to life the many races and creatures that previous adaptations hardly touched upon. While they don’t play major roles, their presence lends itself to showing that there’s more than just humans, elves, and dwarves. There’s the eagle-like aarakocra and the aptly named dragonborn conversing with the characters. One of the most recognizable creatures within Dungeons & Dragons is the owlbear, brought to life is Doric’s preferred wild shape transformation whenever in combat. There’s even a unique use of a red dragon that’s wonderfully done with great animation making it all the more fresh and fun.
Honor Among Thieves is so much fun that it’s few flaws can be overlooked very easily. It tries not to be a spectacular epic like The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It flirts with going for the scope one would expected from the fantasy genre, but doesn’t quite go all the way. This can be either a good thing or bad depending on one’s interests. Same can be said with keeping the world-building at a minimum. While it would detract the story, digging deep into the history and lore of The Forgotten Realms would be enchanting to those interested. I may have to listen to it a few more times, but I found the score by Lorne Balfe to be merely pleasant and I’m not entirely sure how memorable they are. Again, these are minor criticisms that are forgivable for a film that’s difficult to dislike.
I’m hopeful that Goldstein and Daley have developed a blueprint on how to adapt Dungeons & Dragons into a feature film and make it work. Honor Among Thieves doesn’t take itself too seriously, yet it also avoids being a parody of the genre. The narrative benefits character development over unnecessary world-building, allowing for audiences to enjoy things happening and their servicing the storytelling. The animation is very nice and the overall visual effects do a wonderful job of bringing to life creatures and races from the game that had yet to be showcased on screen before. It is just a fun movie to watch from start to finish, having managed to roll a critical success.
|Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves|
March 31, 2023
Directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley