At the turn of the 21st century, a movie was released that changed the way audiences thought of big screen fantasy. Epic in ambition, it used cutting-edge special effects to create a fantastic land full of mystery and wonder, where iconic fantasy tropes were given new life under the guidance of classically trained actors.
And then a year or so later The Lord of the Rings changed the way audiences thought of big screen fantasy all over again, because that earlier film was Dungeons & Dragons and for a brief while there it seemed like it had pretty much killed the whole big screen fantasy genre stone dead.
The obvious difference between the 2000 film Dungeons & Dragons and this year’s Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is that the new one stars Chris Pine and the old one stars Justin Whalin (who?). The first film is a notorious dud, despite a couple of direct-to-video sequels; the new one has generally been getting positive reviews (which I agree with) ahead of its general release this week. But if you look beyond that, they have a lot more in common than you might think.
That’s not just because they’re both based on the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. The whole point of a fantasy role-playing game (and D&D pretty much invented the genre), is that once you grasp the basic rules you can create a campaign that goes in just about any direction you like. No two games are the same, and yet these two movies hit a lot of the same notes.
They’re both big budget fantasy epics that don’t take themselves completely seriously; they both feature a lot of special effects involving both dungeons and dragons. The plot is complicated and based on a quest, set in a world where not everyone can be trusted and magic items push the story along. The main character is a thief caught up in a clash of nations, the accents are all over the place, and they both feature big name UK actors hamming it up. It’s a good thing the latest film has a subtitle otherwise it’d be a struggle to tell them apart.
Back in the 2000 version, Ridley (Whalin – you know, the guy who played Jimmy Olsen in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) is a thief who, together with his partner Snails (Marlon Wayans) operate in a semi-medieval land. There magic rules (and has rules), dragons come in various colour-codes, and the Empress Savina (Thora Birch, following up her star turn in American Beauty) is under threat from the evil magic user Profion (Jeremy Irons, who chews the scenery shamelessly).
He plans to snatch her wand of Gold Dragon control while also laying his hands on a wand that will give him power over Red Dragons; Ridley, Snails, magic-user Marina (Zoe McLellan), tallish dwarf Elwood (Lee Arenberg) and elf Norda (Kristen Wilson) team up to get the wand before Profion’s henchman Damodar (Bruce Payne) can grab it for his boss. There’s a big dragon fight at the end.
Remember me? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Dungeons & Dragons the game isn’t the strangest piece of pop culture to ever be turned into a film – remember The Emoji Movie? – but once you look beyond the brand name it’s hardly an obvious choice. D&D doesn’t have characters, it has character classes: there’s no iconic clerics or paladins fans are clamouring to see up on the big screen.
So forget luring fans into the cinema with name recognition. Nobody had ever heard of any of those characters (or in many cases, the actors playing them) before the film. Worse, over the decade the film had been in production the name recognition of Dungeons & Dragons itself had taken a nose dive.
In the 80s it was a pop culture phenomenon, driven in part by a ‘Satanic panic’ scare that told parents playing the game was a gateway drug to devil worship. But by 2000, computer games and fantasy rivals had left D&D a niche hobby at a time where nostalgia wasn’t quite the all-conquering force in pop culture it is today.
No stars, average special effects, and being based on a property nobody cared about are pretty big hurdles for a would-be blockbuster to overcome. And if despite all that you still decided to fork over your cash for a ticket, you found yourself watching a film where nobody seemed sure what level to pitch their performances at so even the dwarves went way too big.
Chris Pine vs Justin Whalin
You might not want to say the big difference between the 2000 and 2023 films is that Chris Pine is a charming and likable movie star who can shift effortlessly between comedy and drama while Justin Whalin quit acting not long after appearing in National Lampoon’s Dorm Daze 2. But if you did want to say it, you wouldn’t be wrong.
To be fair, the new film also has a much stronger supporting cast, better special effects, some impressive real-world locations (the success of The Lord of the Rings has taught fantasy film makers that gratuitous cut scenes where our heroes travel across majestic landscapes are essential), and Hugh Grant once again playing a sleazy yet somehow likable scam artist. Plus a Gelatinous Cube, everyone’s favourite dungeon threat (presumably they’re saving a Beholder for the sequel).
But beyond that, both films are clearly going for the same lightweight tone. They’re adventure films featuring characters that don’t take themselves completely seriously, a niche Hollywood has loved since forever (as seeing the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3 before the 2023 film made very clear). Which makes a lot of sense if you know anything about Dungeons & Dragons (the game), as that’s pretty much the whole appeal of playing it.
What makes a D&D game work is the vibe. No matter how serious or scary the scenario you’re playing, pretty much every D&D session (well, every D&D session I was ever involved with as a teen) will run through lengthy stretches where people are just messing around trying stupid or wacky things. Maybe trying to seduce the monster instead of fighting it will work – let’s give it a try!
It’s basically a game where a group of friends get together to tell a story, and often that story is going to get silly or bizarre. That’s the secret of D&D’s success.
For the most part, the current film manages to nail that tone. There’s a throwaway joke about brain eating monsters ignoring the party because they’re not worth it; a creepy graveyard resurrection rapidly devolves into a series of comedy skits. That kind of thing is as much the heart of Dungeons & Dragons as the dungeons and, you know, dragons.
When it comes to big screen adaptations, turns out second time’s the (magic) charm.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is in cinemas from Thursday; DVD copies of the 2000 Dungeons & Dragons are currently available on eBay for $1.99 plus postage.