Dungeons & Dragons (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

As long ago as the early 1980s, before the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game entered the mainstream, there was talk of a D&D movie. I can recall being at a gaming convention and listening to E. Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons, discussing his plan for getting the movie made. Even at the time, when I was heavily involved in the game, I thought a film was a bad idea. After all, the essence of D&D is becoming a character in a fantasy adventure, not watching one. Killing dragons isn't a spectator sport. Now, after nearly two decades, the oft-discussed and frequently rumored D&D movie has become a reality, and, unfortunately, the hackneyed result has borne out my concerns. It's better to spend two hours in a small room with a bunch of geeks rolling funny-shaped dice than it is to sit in a theater and watch this yawn-provoking adventure through realms of warriors and wizardry.

In all of fantasy literature, there are really only about three basic plots, and Dungeons & Dragons has picked the least promising of them: the quest. This means that for the entire running length of the movie, we accompany a bunch of poorly developed characters as they run from place-to-place in search of the one powerful magic item that will save the kingdom and defeat the evil wizard. Of course, since this is Dungeons & Dragons, a lot of the wandering around takes place in poorly-lit tunnels inhabited by unsavory creatures. And the climax, where most of the special effects budget was expended, features an impressive aerial battle between two races of dragons. The only drawback is that the dragons bear a disconcerting resemblance to the title creature from Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich's Godzilla.

Our heroes are all stock D&D character types. There are a pair of young thieves, Ridley (Justin Whalin) and Snails (Marlon Wayans, who is on hand for comic relief, but was far funnier in Scary Movie); a pretty young magic user, Marina (Zoe McLellan); a grumpy dwarf fighter named Elwood (Lee Arenberg); and an elf ranger, Norda (Kristen Wilson). The bad guys are the arch-mage Profion (Jeremy Irons) and his ruthless henchman, Damodar (Bruce Payne). Unfortunately, none of these individuals has more than a residue of personality. It's difficult to care about any of them, and, when one dies, the event fails to provoke a noticeable emotional response.

Dungeons & Dragons probably should have taken itself a little less seriously. As it is, the film is suffused with the kind of low-level pretentiousness that often afflicts science fiction and fantasy movies when their creators overestimate the quality of the product. This picture clearly wants to be to the swords & sorcery genre what Star Wars was to sci-fi. To that end, it steals shamelessly from George Lucas' motion picture in everything from a duel with magical swords to a score (credited to Justin Caine Burnett) that is so derivative of the Star Wars music that John Williams should sue for credit.

The acting (or lack thereof) is astonishing for a motion picture in wide release. The leads - Justin Whalin, Marlon Wayans, Zoe McLellan - are pretty bad, but they're Oscar-worthy when compared to some of the prominent names. Thora Birch, lauded for her work in last year's American Beauty, is so lifeless that she's painful to watch. Her portrayal of a teenage empress makes Natalie Portman's Queen Amidala look impressive. Hell, Birch even achieves the seemingly impossible task of making Olivia D'Abo's interpretation of young female royalty in Conan the Destroyer appear competent. Then there's Jeremy Irons, who seems to have decided that the only approach to saying lines as silly as the one's he is given is to go embarrassingly over-the-top and turn into a buffoon. In a way, Irons' performance (as bad as it is) is a hoot. It's kind of fun to watch him froth at the mouth as he delivers line after line of unbelievably inane dialogue. At least he's not standing around looking stone-faced and consumptive, as has been his habit of late. And it's enjoyable to see Tom Baker looking oh-so-different from when he played Doctor #4 in Doctor Who. Perhaps because he's only on screen for a couple of minutes, Baker escapes with his dignity intact. He may be the only one who can make that claim.

The hallmark of Dungeons & Dragons is the special effects. They're actually pretty impressive - certainly the best we've seen in a fantasy film to date (although, judging by the rumors, Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings will make the visuals in Dungeons & Dragons look clumsy). There's a certain majesty in seeing dragon armies war against one another in the skies high above a great city. The set design, while not approaching that of Conan the Barbarian, is also a plus. The world of Dungeons & Dragons looks like a vast, untamed place of unexpected dangers and exotic creatures. If only the filmmakers had bothered to populate it with real characters...

I don't expect Dungeons & Dragons to have much broad-based appeal. The game is well past its prime. Past and present gamers will be drawn to this movie out of curiosity, but its real target seems to be 10-to-13 year old males, who will be impressed by the monsters and not terribly upset by the lack of character development or the complete absence of an interesting plot. For just about everyone else, here are a few basic requirements necessary to enjoy Dungeons & Dragons: a strong constitution and relatively low scores when it comes to wisdom and intelligence. Oh, and anyone susceptible to sleep spells should studiously avoid this movie. The film casts an effective one that will put you out in no time.

Dungeons & Dragons (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2000-12-08
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1