Should I Watch..? 'Dungeons & Dragons'
What's the big deal?
Dungeons & Dragons is an action fantasy film released in 2000 and is based on the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. The film was directed by Courtney Solomon in his debut film as director, the unintended result of pressure from investors and the rights holders, TSR and Wizards Of The Coast. The film stars Jeremy Irons, Thora Birch, Justin Whalin, Marlon Wayans and Bruce Payne and concerns the power struggle between rival mages in a fantasy empire and the misadventures of two thieves caught in the middle. The film was savaged by critics when it was released and the film limped its way to a loss-making $33.8 million worldwide. Despite this, the film spawned a made-for-TV sequel Wrath Of The Dragon God in 2005 and a direct-to-DVD sequel in 2012, The Book Of Vile Darkness. It's worth noting that neither were much of an improvement on this hokey nonsense.
What's it about?
In the troubled Empire of Izmir, a group of magic users known as Mages rule the land alongside the Council and Empress Savina, who wishes to grant rights to non-magic users. In order to help achieve this, she decides to locate and use the fabled Rod of Savrille which grants the wielder power to control red dragons. Thoroughly against the Empress' plan and lusting for power himself, the evil mage Profion also sets out to steal the Rod of Savrille before Savina can get her hands on it and he sends his chief henchman Damodar off to find the Rod.
Meanwhile, friends and partners-in-crime Ridley and Snails break into the school of magic in order to steal valuables. Together with apprentice mage Marina, they witness Damodar interrogate and then murder the Library Wizard as to the whereabouts of a map leading to the Rod of Savrille. Escaping through a portal, the three of them bump into dwarven warrior Elwood and the four of them set off to keep the Rod from falling into Profion's hands. But Profion and Damodar are never far behind...
Topper Lilien & Carroll Cartwright
107 minutes but it feels much longer
Release Date (UK)
9th February, 2001
Action, Adventure, Fantasy
What's to like?
Well... hang on, give me a minute.
I suppose that the film works hard to create a fantasy world in which to set this mind-boggingly stupid film in. Sets and costumes look the part although the film lacks the depth provided by Peter Jackson in the far-more successful The Lord Of The Rings series. But they tried, bless them.
I also appreciated the effort to squeeze in some recognisable Dungeons & Dragons creatures in the film such as the iconic Beholder, the floating ball of eyes with a giant mouth. As a long-time player of the game back then, I felt that my patience - which had long since evaporated by the time the damn thing actually appeared - was finally rewarded. The only other things I enjoyed were the cameos from Tom Baker in ridiculous elf-ears and O'Brien spoofing his role as host of gameshow The Crystal Maze.
And... that's it.
- Solomon had spent ten years raising the funding for the film after he acquired the rights in 1990 when he was just 19 years old. He only intended to produce the film but TSR head Lorraine Williams vetoed every choice for director Solomon suggested, forcing him to direct.
- When asked why he did the movie, Irons claimed that he had just bought himself a castle and had to pay for it somehow.
- Another reason for the film's lack of success may be down to the fact that it wasn't based on the popular Eighties cartoon series of the same name but the original rule books published in 1974.
- This is one of only three films directed by Solomon, who is much busier and more prolific as a producer. Neither An American Haunting or Getaway received positive reviews so at least he's consistent!
What's not to like?
Frankly, it's difficult to know where to start with a film that catastrophically bad as Dungeons & Dragons. The most obvious target for my wrath are the cast who are utterly hopeless from top to bottom, from Whalin and Wayans to the extras milling about for no reason. The most notable performance comes from Irons in the most hammy display I've seen since I last visited a nearby farm shop. Payne brings the right amount of cheesy pathos to the picture but Irons goes completely off the rails, booming his Big Evil Voice whenever he feels like it. He is hilariously bad.
The film's surprisingly threadbare plot has so many holes in it that it's actually more 'hole' than it is 'plot'. Why does the Empress need control over red dragons to deliver rights to the ordinary masses? I don't see why that would help but then again, what kind of empire has an empress as well as a council of generic old men and mages? Nothing about the film makes any sense such as O'Brien's puzzles of death that Ridley had to endure or why a thief would be called Snails. Speaking of Snails, Wayan's performance is largely reduced to being a screechy-voice comic sidekick with no real bearing on the plot - annoying (and possibly racist, depending on how sensitive you are to such things) in a Jar Jar Binks-style. Whalin, who I recall seeing last as Jimmy Olson in The New Adventures Of Superman, is utterly lost as a charismatic lead as he feels no different to his TV outings as a supporting character.
The effects are poor, given the film's budget, and shatter any semblance of illusion the paper-thin characters and sets might provide. There just isn't anything to recommend about this film which feels massively out-of-step with the actual Dungeons & Dragons licence - remember, I was a fan until this garbage appeared on my radar although I resisted the urge to dress up and wander into a wood, pretending to cast fireballs in my dressing gown doubling as a wizard's cloak. It feels like a massive insult to fans and players, a deliberately awful adaptation that mocks people who have invested time and effort in their hobby and have forged friendships to last a lifetime.
Should I watch it?
No. Even long-time fans of the game will find their loyalty tested by this monumental streak of ill-conceived pish. The only thing to enjoy is Irons' wonderfully demented appearance and O'Brien's pop-culture-bursting cameo. Nothing else left to say.
Great For: the CD could be used as either a coaster or a frisbee
Not So Great For: fans of Dungeons & Dragons, the reputations of everybody involved in the project, the Academy who should reclaim their Oscar from Irons and re-use it for someone else
What else should I watch?
Is it unfair to compare this to The Lord Of The Rings? They are both based on highly successful books that utilised a fantasy setting, both of them inspired sequels and both of them were released at the turn of the Millennium. Of course, the similarities stop there - Peter Jackson's epic masterpiece remains the definitive fantasy film (although it is split into three parts) and is even better than his return to Middle-Earth to make a trilogy out of The Hobbit, which frankly was unwise. Younger viewers who grew up reading J.K. Rowling's books might prefer the eight-film series based around everyone's favourite bespectacled wizard, Harry Potter. My favourite films are The Prisoner Of Azkaban and The Deathly Hallows but all the films are worth watching at least once.
Until Jackson rescued the genre from B-movie obscurity forever, fantasy films had a reputation for being overly hokey and staples of low-budget cinema. But there are decent examples out there, where the film-makers put in a bit more effort and imagination instead of treating the material poorly. Willow is a fine example, written by George Lucas and directed by Ron Howard and is much more than just the film that introduced Val Kilmer to his wife Joanne Whalley. Something a bit more unusual is Hellboy which introduces a more steam-punk aesthetic and sees Ron Perlman's demonic hero delivering justice with the help of a mean right-hook and a huge revolver. Lastly, there is Highlander - an overblown and camp epic featuring immortal swordsmen, lost loves and the somewhat odd sight of Sean Connery playing a Spaniard. But it remains well worth a watch today, especially compared to its dead-on-arrival sequels.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox