“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor among Thieves” movie review
SXSW: “Game Night” directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein know how to play their cards right.
Breathing life into the beloved Dungeons & Dragons board game wasn’t easy, as the long-awaited feature film adaptation of the role-playing tabletop game took four years to hit the silver screen on opening night at this year’s SXSW. But patience, passion and perseverance won out – and by the way, these are not only qualities that are necessary to make any film, but exactly the mixture that one needs to play the RPG that one loves.
Drawing inspiration from the game’s unique improvisation and community creativity, directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein successfully edit one of the best fantasy adventure films to date with the title “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor among Thieves”.
The story follows the disheveled and comically calculating Edgin (played by the charming Chris Pine), an ex-Harper turned petty thief. He escapes from prison with his barbaric best friend Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), who spent years helping him raise his daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) after her mother was murdered. The two embark on an epic journey to rescue Kira from the clutches of a former comrade named Forge (Hugh Grant), whose greed and selfishness knows no bounds. They team up with Simon, an old friend and self-aware wizard played by Justice Smith, and his unrequited love, a druid shapeshifter named Doric (Sophia Lillis).
Each character has their own appeal and magnetic mythology. Rodriguez is a dominant player who commands the screen with his strength, sarcasm and occasional sweet moments. While Grant plays an antagonist, his approach to evil is more cartoonish and funny, successfully speaking to the film’s playfulness.
The film’s real villainy is therefore left to Daisy Head, who plays a menacing Red Witch named Sofina. Regé-Jean Page has a minor role as Xenk, a dead paladin whose subtle facial expressions and minimal dialogue get big laughs. The diametrically opposed characters often paired together highlight the inclusive nature of the D&D world. One character’s weakness is another’s strength, and the teamwork it inspires is what makes for a confusing yet enjoyable experience.
A team of special effects artists and cinematographer Barry Peterson create beautiful, lush landscapes and signature landscapes. Each region is visually stunning, and seamless camerawork pans across the area to give the audience an immersive sense of the magic or mayhem of each location.
Editor Dan Lebental successfully handles fast-paced, heart-pounding fight scenes and elaborate chase sequences with sharp precision. Whether it’s a Doric shape-shifter running away from Sofia, or the gang trying to escape a dangerous but adorable chubby dragon, the editing and camerawork keep the audience in the action without feeling overwrought or over the top.
Composer Lorne Balfe ratchets up the tension with a unique blend of verbal chanting and rhythmic beats that appropriately enhance the meticulous stunts. The score becomes its own entity and is unlike the soothing, overwhelming lot of other fantasy films. Balfe also successfully relies on the bardic history of Pine’s character, composing light, poetic and stringed songs.
One of the charms of the film is the heavy use of CGI and practical effects. The larger monsters and world building use CGI, but are executed in a way that never pulls the viewer out of the story. The practical effects and puppetry shine brightly with every creature or chattering corpse that gets up close and personal with the characters. The creative decision adds a layer of nostalgia that speaks to the tactile imagination that was part of the original game.
D&D fans will also enjoy a number of callbacks, including the owl bear, displacement beasts, mind eaters, and jelly cubes. (Sharp-eyed gamers will be excited to see the flashbacks to the D&D cartoon series that aired in the ’80s.) However, audiences completely unfamiliar with the game may enjoy “Honor Among Thieves.” Screenwriters Goldstein, Daley, and Michael Gilio intentionally wrote an accessible script with lovable but flawed characters that mass audiences can empathize with or relate to.
Daley first discovered D&D at the age of 14 on the set of “Freaks and Geeks” and quickly embraced the cooperative and dynamic qualities that make the game so special. It’s clear that he held on to these precious memories while writing and directing the film, because there’s a huge heart present as he navigates an expansive world of seemingly endless imaginative possibilities.
The film’s themes are far from esoteric. Loss, love, friendship and courage are featured throughout the story. Simon’s character in particular speaks to one of the film’s messages, which is about trusting ourselves and having the confidence to embrace what makes each of us unique. Daley and Goldstein infuse the film with fun and emotion, but also subtle commentary about accepting your mistakes and never giving up.
“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Without Thieves” evokes its own kind of cinematic magic that stands proudly apart from other fantasy films. The heartwarming story, charming characters, dazzling visual effects and cheerful nature allow the film to become a treasured classic. An adaptation of this caliber might be seen as a roll of the dice by some, but “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” has already proven itself to be an ironclad winner.
“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor among Thieves” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. Paramount Pictures releases on Friday, March 31.
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