In “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” a fantasy franchise that appeared to have been abandoned in the aughts comes roaring back to life, this time armed with the tried-and-true formula that made Marvel movies the cornerstone of modern culture some years later.
Though Courtney Solmon’s terrible adaptation of the wildly successful role-playing game has more personality in its little dragon claw, it’s like saying “Top Gun: Maverick” is a better movie than a VHS home video of toddlers crashing toy jets into their playpen. It’s as if one dormant blockbuster genre is catching up to the runaway success of another.
Its selection as the opening-night film at South By Southwest, where its aesthetically strong and four-quadrant-bulls-eyeing appeal was always going to draw strong reactions a couple of weeks before releasing just close enough to “Ant-Man: Quantumania,” was the best thing that could have happened to “Dungeons & Dragons.”
This weekend’s success was the best thing to happen to the game. In no way does “Dungeons & Dragons” imply that Renaissance Fair costumes will replace spidermen this Halloween.
The big-budget adventure and theatrical razzle-dazzle that Daley and Goldstein added to this dormant brand are noteworthy. Still, they only serve to make it feel like a cosplayed relative of the MCU’s early forays. Perhaps Jon Favreau ought to receive residuals?
The performers must be enthusiastic about a film with a running time as long as its title. Regé-Jean Page exudes ironic cool when he takes over the film’s middle solid section. Justice Smith exhibits excellent comedic timing in a film whose script (written by Goldstein, Daley, and Michael Gilio) is designed almost exclusively to deliver punchlines.
Chris Pine appears ready to devote his handsome looks and roguish charm to another franchise. Along for the ride is Sophia Lillis from the “IT” movies, who is more of a centerpiece for when things go creative than a charisma machine.
As you may have inferred, “Dungeons & Dragons” is a collaborative film. It’s a caper, an action adventure, and a father-daughter tale. To ignite the dry tinder of the fantastical world they have created, Daley and Goldstein have, most importantly, set out to create an all-ages comedy that blends the diverse characters of its ensemble.
That works in certain places, but when our heroes momentarily go tomb-raiding and there’s a cameo that’s sure to knock audiences’ socks off, the laughs-per-line ratio is at its best.
Yet, “Dungeons & Dragons” quickly outstays its welcome as it sticks to its dramatic plot of MacGuffins, magic, and mischief (oh my!). The more the film focuses on constructing capital-C Characters out of its incessantly quipping comedians, it’s not for nothing that you can sense the movie (and the audience) losing its buzz. And underneath it, all lies a shamelessly predictable redemption story.
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Nonetheless, “Dungeons & Dragons” can be incredibly evocative when it fully commits to the parody-skirting bit. A few inventive set pieces punctuate the 134-minute film. Still, for the most part, the movie’s episodic structure is energized by the realization that apocalyptic fights don’t always have to strive for “Avengers: Endgame”-level seriousness.
The film is aware of its tonal limitations and can be briefly thrilling when it deviates from them. Also, the shoddy CGI and green-screen vistas are more tolerable if you can buy into the inherent crowd-pleasing artifice. Even though a poor man named Jonathan ensures that that aspect of worldbuilding peaks reasonably early on, they are nonetheless delightful inventions.
The fact that “Dungeons & Dragons” is a movie is perhaps the most surprising aspect, especially in light of the Tolkienverse’s recent move to streaming services and HBO’s insistence that it has only just begun to delve into the nooks of Westeros history. The breadth of the planet and the absence of any unifying canon seem to lend themselves best to inventive serial storytelling.
The distinction has, however, been blurred by more than thirty Marvel Studios movies, giving “Dungeons & Dragons” the motivation to simply start from anywhere and provide a sandbox in which any filmmaker can construct their castles.
Although Daley and Goldstein may or may not direct the soon-to-be-announced sequels, it shouldn’t be a surprise if they are soon included in the MCU. With “Dungeons & Dragons,” they’ve provided the best possible tryout.
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