Official attempts to squeeze film and television art out of the Dungeons & Dragons estate have been a dice roll.
A 2002 film and sequel disappointed and largely disappeared. And that’s about it, unless you go back to the early to mid 80’s and the very nice animated series Dungeons & Dragons, a show whose characters were as colorful as their costumes. It also had charm, largely thanks to a tiny unicorn. Directed and co-written by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, who also credits the screenplay for Spider-Man: Homecoming, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is the latest – and most expensive – attempt at something cinematic to bring seriousness to the traditional brand.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves opened this year’s South by Southwest Film and Television Festival in Austin, Texas and will hit theaters on March 31st. Starring Chris Pine as a part-time bard and full-time thief, he tries to capture the often happy but tense feel of a Dungeons & Dragons play session. That used to be a challenge for Hollywood.
Today, although the fantasy genre and the game itself have enjoyed a resurgence, Dungeons & Dragons influences film and television more often than it leads. Check out the recently released Arcane, the Netflix series based on the video game League of Legends, whose debut installment had an airy camaraderie that mirrored the magic and stealth of the long-running RPG. Even the Guardians of the Galaxy movies and their save-the-world-with-artifacts quests owed a debt to D&D’s go-anywhere magic.
And that says nothing about the widespread “actual play” videos and podcasts that show people playing out their adventures, including the “Critical Role” web series that led to the well-received animated series, The Legend of Vox Machina . Dungeons & Dragons remains a powerful and seminal force in pop culture because of its often carefree unpredictability and the creativity it invites.
That’s because the game largely lives in our imagination. Its worlds and characters are guidelines for us to create and improvise, and that makes it a challenge to adapt as well. Although the D&D brand has had its share of popular books – the original titles, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance, are widely respected, as are many of RA Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels – the world is vast and complex, and lives largely in the heads of his players.
We caught a screening of Honor Among Thieves ahead of its SXSW premiere. While a proper review is forthcoming, here are five quick reactions from the film. We strive to be as spoiler-free as possible – and won’t reveal some of the film’s biggest Easter eggs and nods to “D&D” history – but note that the text ahead may contain some light reveals.
The tone is upbeat and lively: Despite running for two hours, Honor Among Thieves feels fairly smooth and transitions from quest to quest relatively quickly. Pine as the pure-hearted thief Edgin is all set for charm, and Michelle Rodriguez’s barbaric fighter Holga is also often played for laughs. Honor Among Thieves, for example, is non-serious about Game of Thrones and opts for a more family-friendly tone.
The film also strives to capture the togetherness and sociality of the game. Often before action sequences, there is a moment for Pine to lead a brainstorming session on how best to strategically plan the fight. As is regularly the case at the “D&D” table, all eyes turn to the magician, in this case Justice Smith’s “mediocre magician” Simon, prompting Simon at one point to angrily say he’s tired of that everyone thinks magic can cure all diseases. And yet magic often saves the day, whether it’s a heavily used “here” staff, essentially a teleportation item, or Sophia Lillis’ shapeshifting druid character, Doric.
It felt like a nod to the game and a hand-holding measure for the audience, when new items or magic are introduced they are brought onto the screen with rules: how it works, here are its limitations. All that’s missing is a dice roll, but Edgin and his team often go through multiple plans to get out of a pickle to simulate those bad rolls. Luckily, when a spell is cast, someone will usually say what it is. Note that tying a rope to a weapon often doesn’t work.
Here are dragons? Not that many actually, and we won’t spoil the wildest. But it felt like a solid 45 to 55 minutes before we got our first sight of a kite. There is also no real dungeon, although there are caves and we can explore the depths of an arena. But fear not, there are plenty of creatures, and in a lively opening we meet an Aarakocra, a humanoid bird race, and what appeared to be a lovely, tame, reptilian humanoid – I’m told it was a human snake known as the Yuan-ti. The Aarakocra is particularly well done, although, like much in Honor Among Thieves, the character is used as a punchline for a joke.
There’s plenty more including a mighty owl-bear you picture and, yes, a Tabaxi, and the human-like feline is as adorable as you’d hope. The Tabaxi scene also prompts one of the biggest laughs in the film, thanks to Simon’s attempts to court Doric. One concern – and that’s a real minor spoiler – is that a dragon is being used as the punch line for a fat joke, and I wish the film had been smarter. While I respect the filmmaker’s desire to exceed expectations, even with storied “D&D” characters like dragons, the goal wasn’t to poke fun at obesity.
Ultimately, downplaying dragons allows the Displacer Beast – a black, panther-like creature with menacing tails emanating from its shoulders – to steal the limelight.
The villains, the NPCs. There are some twists and turns and, revealed early on, a villain behind a villain. We’ll refrain from ultimate motivations, but note that Hugh Grant’s Forge is played to overly manipulative lengths. Grant, like Pine, Smith, and in general the entire cast all look like they’re having a blast in the medieval light costumes, so much so that “D&D” never really gets strained. That’s not a criticism, as the filmmakers are looking for a feather-light touch that surprises a heartwarming late-movie moment.
The plot is set in motion with a dead wife, but the quest for revenge at least allows the film to have many characters whose motivations aren’t immediately clear. Regé-Jean Page’s Xenk is one who will initially be treated with suspicion, but fans will know that a paladin knight ultimately fights for good. Page plays the character with an uptight stoicism that allows him to be the straight male for a number of jokes from Pine’s Edgin, but the character felt like a nod to the players’ table. Just when our heroes were feeling overwhelmed, a higher tier fighter arrives to help everyone level up. And it leads to a scene clearly inspired by the Indiana Jones movies.
Every playgroup is different. One of the most popular Dungeons & Dragons-related screen titles is Prime Video’s The Legend of Vox Machina, an animated adaptation of an original campaign played by the folks at Critical Role. But just because they both fall under the term “D&D” doesn’t mean they’re comparable — even beyond the inherent differences between a movie and an animated series.
“Vox Machina” is intended for an adult audience, which means it contains a lot of profanity, graphic violence, and sex. The show manages to capture a level of unpredictability that can only be achieved through the decisions and dice rolls of actually playing the game.
Honor Among Thieves targets the broader appeal of the more family-friendly PG-13. However, both channel a similar disrespect for fantasy adventures – arguing for always having a paladin in your party.
Tracy Brown, a Times contributor, contributed to this story.