A generation ago, someone named Courtney Solomon bought the rights to the D&D role-playing system and made a truly terrible, truly cheap movie using the title – and there have been a few direct-to-anywhere-but-a-cinema sequels to that (you can spot an old-school D&D movie because Bruce Payne is in it). That was enough to sideline the IP as a film franchise, but nothing with name recognition is truly lost as a revival property, no matter how dire the last stab at it was … there’s a new Super Mario Bros movie coming out, even if the last go at it was the sort of company-ending disaster that makes execs wake up screaming thirty years later.
So here’s a new D&D movie – pitched outside the (now ageing) fanbase of the game (a 70s/80s phenom) but with enough back-references and knowing elements (gelatinous cubes!) to keep them onside. Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein from a script they co-authored with Michael Gilio from a story of Gilio and Chirs McKay, this at once an utterly generic fantasy quest adventure done with wit and spirit and a crafty adaptation of the ‘it’s all about’ family spirit of the Fast and Furious films to a fantasy setting (it even has Michelle Rodriguez in it). It’s been an issue with previous films based on games that games – valuable properties though they might be to their corporate owners – tend to be derivative of novels, films, comics or TV shows in the same genre and furthermore the ‘narrative’ of a game resembles but isn’t an involving story. We get a swathe of ‘found family’ and ‘bad Dad’ tropes – beloved of screenwriting courses as a substitute for felt emotions – with a layering of snark to take the edge off the sentiment, very much in the mode of the breezier Marvel movies.
Edgin (Chris Pine), who used to be a ‘Harper’ (freelance good guy) but became a thief (because ‘family’*), and sort-of troll woman Holga (Rodriguez, with tatts and hairy pits) bust out of the icehouse prison to get revenge on their former pal, trickster Forge (Hugh Grant, kind of doing Boris Johnson), who now runs a city in cahoots with goth sorceress Sofina (Daisy Head). To steal a plot token which allows for one permanent rescue from death – set aside for Edgin’s token murdered wife – the duo team up with shit sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith), fey shapeshifter Doric (Sophia Lillis) and for a stretch guest star hero Xenk (Regé-Jean Paul) for adventures on the road, under the earth, in a city, in a maze, in actual dungeons, etc., while facing many perils, including but not limited to dragons. Some thought has been devoted to coming up with newish twists – this dragon is morbidly obese, but still deadly – and using props from the gamebooks. It even has songs.
We get exciting or amusing bits of business and something approaching a story – with hooks for further adventures – but it’s still a castle built on sand … a fantasy rooted in Californian hippie capitalists rolling dice and quaffing from plastic tankards rather than, say, the depth or lore and history and landscape found in Tolkien or Malory or Alan Garner or Norse mythology or even George R.R. Martin. It’s fun, but I kind of feel sorry for Courtney Solomon – this doesn’t have any more vision or passion than his D&D but has been made in the admirable spirit of ‘what if we didn’t make it shit’ rather than because there was a burning need for the material to get another bigscreen go-round.
*This goes for Dominic Toretto and co. too – how much do you care that the guy who ripped you off has a family? In fact, if they’re happy with those fasterfuriouser goons stealing from you doesn’t that make the cute wifey and kidsey and best palsies as awful as the smug robbing bastard they live with?