Dungeons & Dragons, set in a divided kingdom where sorcery rules above all things, until a young empress sets to change things for the betterment of all her subjects. A pair of thieves get swept away in a quest for a rod to control Red Dragons as a political/military coup looms.
Certainly, this is a movie that has been universally reviled and panned since its release. One reviewer goes as far to call it the worst movie of 2000, while another proclaimed that God "hated him" for having made him suffer through the movie. Despite all the general loathing directed at the movie (and a mere 10% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes, I sat down to brave this cinematic disaster.
Simply put? This movie is just is not as bad as it is made out to be. That does not mean that it is a fantastic film, but it is one undeserving of at least some of the venom thrown its way. The movie is Dungeons & Dragons which, for anyone who has not been near a basement in the past 40 years, is the name of the best selling role playing game in history. This movie is very accurate in reflecting its roots. This is not Lord of the Rings, instead this movie could believably have played out around a gaming table in someone's kitchen. For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about this movie, it really is D&D.
The movie stars famed actor Jeremy Irons, television perennial Justin Whalin, comedian Marlon Wayans, a blue lipped Bruce Payne, and American Beauty's Thora Birch. To this fairly solid cast are added supporting players including Doctor Who's Tom Baker and Richard O'Brien. One would think that this fairly veteran cast would have made for an amazing movie. One would be wrong. Again, this movie is so universally reviled by people who have seen it that it has received reviews proclaiming it "disgraceful", "a flop", "an abomination", and more. Seriously, people absolutely hate this movie.
Producer/Director Courtney Solomon acquired the rights for Dungeons & Dragons in 1990, at the age of 19. It took him ten years to raise the money to make the film, all the while fighting the then head of TSR, Lorraine Williams. Williams vetoed every director choice that Solomon put forth (including Francis Ford Coppola) and forced Solomon to direct. Considering that Lorraine Williams considered gamers and most of her workers her social inferiors, and held it as a point of pride that she had never played Dungeons & Dragons, is it really surprising the quality of the movie suffered under her dictates?
But it really isn't as bad as all of that. This is a movie based on Dungeons & Dragons after all. The point is to be faithful to the game itself, not the story genres that may have inspired it. While this movie tries to be "high fantasy" (and fails) it falls right back into the niche of Sword & Sorcery.
The effects are low budget, but still better than many of effects from other Sword & Sorcery films. The cast is fairly solid, although some performances seem a bit too over the top. This can probably be credited to a reluctant, first-time, director. The story itself is epic in scope and local in feel.
So why the hate? Most likely, a good amount of the hate showered on this film is because it fails on the most important level. It does not feel that it honors the game that its potential fan base loves so much. Had a classic AD&D module been adapted for the movie (something Williams surely would never have allowed without demanding more money), and adapted well? This movie would've gotten high praise from the gaming community. Instead, it captures the feel of the game experience, perhaps too well.
It seems that, no matter how dark and serious a game someone is trying to run, there is always one person at the table who is determined to turn it into their own stand-up comedy spotlight. Putting that guy's character in the movie (Marlan Wayan's character "Snail") was a bad decision. Attempting to do other things that they simply didn't have the know-how to pull off (like making the dwarf look shorter than the rest of the cast) certainly dragged things down further.
The constant struggle between what this movie is trying to be, versus what the movie actually is, gets a bit exhausting. The potential for this to have been a much greater movie is clearly visible. Simply having better special effects would've carried this production to much higher praise (seriously, that sad-sack Beholder was depressing). Having someone a little more solid, and a little less stoned, than Marlan Wayans would really have helped too.
But there are moments that really shine through and show the love for D&D that inspired this project. The thieves guild, the aerial dragon battle, and the use of classic D&D monsters (yes, including the sad-sack Beholder) all point towards a real attempt to make something for the game's players. That it ultimately fell short is more a reflection of Lorraine William's meddling and Courtney Solomon's relatively small budget for a project with a scope so large.
When creating a movie based upon Dungeons & Dragons...
Do: Include a mixture of the game's fantasy races.
Don't: Have a "dwarf" who appears to be 5'8.
Do: Enhance the mystique of characters by making them appear exotic.
Don't: Give anyone blue lips.
Do: Have a racially diverse cast representative of the game's player/fan base.
Don't: Have Marlon Wayans mug his way through the movie like a minstrel show player. Shameful.
Do: Create tension by showing that the characters are not invincible and can die.
Do: Kill off Marlan Wayan's character.
Don't: Wait so long to do it.
Do: Include dragons.
Don't: Use second rate computer effects that had already been surpassed by the computer game industry.
In the end, this movie truly is a fairly accurate reflection of the D&D experience of many people. It isn't a great movie, but it certainly isn't the worst in the genre, not by a long shot. This is light year's beyond something like Wizards of the Demon Sword for example. So, go ahead, give this movie another look. Don't go in with high expectations, be realistic. You might find that it isn't as bad as it is reputed to be. I'd give this 2 stars out of 5, on par (in my opinion) with Red Sonja without being as crushingly disappointing.
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