Way back in the distant past of 2000, there was a movie called Dungeons & Dragons. It was a pretty big deal at the time, with a substantial budget, plenty of flashy CGI, and a cast that included Jeremy Irons and a then-hot Thora Birch (hot in the sense of fame, for clarity’s sake). It was also, unfortunately but deservedly, a rather massive flop
Treating the fantasy trappings of the game it took its name from as an embarrassing necessity, its mix of overwrought portentousness and slacker humour didn’t work at all. D&D crashed and burned, failing to make back its original budget (not even accounting for what I remember as a substantial marketing campaign). It was enough of a flop that it could have killed off fantasy movies as a genre for a decade, were it not for the small matter of The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring coming out the next year. As it was, the D&D film series limped on with a couple of direct to DVD sequels before being put out of its misery.
Well, now we have a new D&D movie, in the form of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, and it’s coming out into a very different landscape. Not only is fantasy as a genre both more diverse and more respectable, but D&D and roleplaying are actually kind of cool at the moment, courtesy of cameos in Stranger Things and real-play series like Critical Role. And, wonder of wonders, HAT (they might have thought a little harder about that acronym) isn’t just a good movie, it’s also a riotously fun one.
Spoilers below the jump…
Sure, the film is stuffed with CGI, but that CGI is actually used to recreate elements of the Forgotten Realms setting from D&D that players would recognise, and those elements are used as functional parts of the narrative, not as embarrassing set dressing. (The beholder from the original movie can make me cringe at a distance of two decades.) As the action hops from location to location, each one is colourfully depicted and the various fantastic beasts that show up all have a good amount of heft to them.
Cleverly, the writers of the movie have hung the story on a familiar movie form: the heist. The main characters have to run a scam on a former friend and in order to do so they have to gather a team, case the joint, make a plan, deal with setbacks, collect necessary equipment, etc. Any halfway ciné-literate viewer will catch on to how things are supposed to work, and that allows them to just sit back and enjoy the ride. A ride that takes them on a whistle-stop tour of the Forgotten Realms, complete with encounters with the undead, dragons, and Red Wizards, not all of which are hindrances to our heroes’ quest.
The lead heroes in question are Chris Pine as bard and spy Edgin, who is only marginally handy in a fight and slightly better at making plans, and Michelle Rodriguez as barbarian warrior Holga, absolutely the combat specialist of the two and devoted friend to Edgin and surrogate mother to his daughter. That shared devotion provides the emotional hook for the plot, driving the heroes into and through their heist and counterpointing a personal motive against the more traditionally grandiose plans of the villains. In fact, the conflicting web of motivations is one of the strongest points of the movie: everyone’s reasons for what they’re doing are kept clear and consistent, right up to the inevitable but satisfying conclusion.
For D&D fans, there’s plenty of fun in spotting the many and varied call-outs to elements of the game’s lore, both Forgotten Realms-specific and otherwise, but what really makes the movie sing is how it uses now-recognisable elements of the roleplaying experience to enliven the action. The heist itself, with its many setbacks and impromptu plans, resembles closely many roleplaying sessions of my own experience, in which players came up with outlandish plans that got themselves into trouble (with or without the help of the dice), which they then got themselves out of via even more implausible plans. There were times in the action when you could feel the fumbles and criticals being rolled.
Special mention needs to be given to Regé-Jean Page’s extended cameo as the paladin Xenk Yendar. The “lawful-good” alignment in D&D is often jokingly referred to as “awful good” and paladins portrayed as dour enforcers of divine will, but Page brings a warmth and humour to his portrayal while still being the perfect paladin. It’s an impressive achievement and one I want to catch again on a rewatch. For many, I suspect Page will be the highlight of the movie.
All the above is only a very quick and incomplete stroll across the highlights of the movie. D&D: HAT is a surprising riot of a film, and it’s one that should manage to entertain both fans of the original game and people who don’t have the first notion of what a displacer beast is. Go see it, relax into it, and enjoy the ride.