AUSTIN, Texas — A fantasy property seemingly discarded in the aughts comes roaring back to life in “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” this time armed with the reliable and generic formula that made Marvel movies pop culture’s cornerstone some years later. It’s as if one dormant blockbuster genre were catching up to the runaway success of another, and though this movie from “Game Night” directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein has more personality in its little dragonclaw than Courtney Solmon’s abominable take on the ultrapopular role-playing game, that’s a bit like saying “Top Gun: Maverick” is a better movie than VHS home video of toddlers crashing toy jets into their playpen.
The best thing that could have happened to “Dungeons & Dragons” is what happened this weekend: making good on its selection as opening-night film at South By Southwest, where its aesthetically nimble and four-quadrant-bulls-eyeing appeal were always going to draw big reactions a couple weeks before releasing just close enough to “Ant-Man: Quantumania” to wash some of the lingering aftertaste away. No, “Dungeons & Dragons” is by no means signaling that Renaissance Fair cosplay will replace spidermen this Halloween. But it's notable that for all the big-budget adventuring and showy razzle-dazzle Daley and Goldstein brought to this hibernating franchise, it only makes it feel like a cosplayed cousin of the MCU’s earliest endeavors. Maybe Jon Favreau should get residuals?
For a movie as overlong as its title, it’s key that the cast is game. Chris Pine appears ready to devote his handsome looks and roguish charm to another franchise; Michelle Rodriguez is right at home in a stunt-heavy sidekick role that’s more or less Letty Ortiz armed with a battleaxe; Regé -Jean Page drips with ironic cool when he takes over the movie’s strong middle section; and Justice Smith sports great comedic timing in a movie whose script (from Goldstein, Daley and Michael Gilio) is constructed almost exclusively to deliver punchlines and punches. Sophia Lillis of the “IT” movies also tags along, less of a charisma machine than a centerpiece for when things gets inventive.
As you might’ve gleaned, “Dungeons & Dragons” is a team-up movie. It’s also a caper, an action romp, a father-daughter story. But most of all, Daley and Goldstein have set out to make a suitable-for-all-ages comedy that rubs its ensemble’s distinct personalities together in hopes that the ensuing sparks will set aflame the dry tinder of the fantasy world they’ve presented. It’s effective in spots; the best laughs-per-line ratio comes when our heroes briefly go tomb-raiding, and there’s a cameo destined to rock audiences’ socks off.
But the more “Dungeons & Dragons” insists on its dramatically banal story of MacGuffins, magic and mischief (oh my!), the more it wears out its welcome. It isn’t for naught that you can sense the movie (and the audience) losing its buzz the more it insists on making capital-C Characters out of its endlessly quipping comedians, and there’s a shamelessly predictable redemption arc underpinning it all.
Still, there’s something to be said for how transportive “Dungeons & Dragons” can be when it’s committed to the parody-skirting bit. A few memorable set pieces show off an ingenuity that you wish coursed through the entire 134-minute runtime, but more often than not the movie’s episodic construction is enlivened by an understanding that apocalyptic battles don’t always have to strive for “Avengers: Endgame”-level gravitas. The movie knows where its tonal parameters are and can be momentarily thrilling when pushing against them; plus, the dodgy CGI and green-screen landscapes go down easier if you manage to buy into inherent crowdpleasing artifice. As for the creatures themselves? They’re delightful creations, though a poor soul by the name of Jonathan ensures that that side of the worldbuilding peaks very early on.
At a time when the Tolkienverse has jumped to streaming and HBO insists it’s only begun to explore the corners of Westeros history, maybe the most surprising thing about “Dungeons & Dragons” is that it’s a movie at all. The vastness of the world and lack of any central canon is ostensibly most suitable for serialized, imaginative storytelling. Then again, thirty-plus Marvel Studios films have blurred the line, granting “Dungeons & Dragons” the impetus to merely start from somewhere and build a sandbox that any filmmaker can create their castles in. The sure-to-be-announced sequels may or may not be helmed by Daley and Goldstein themselves, but we shouldn’t be surprised if they get wrapped up into the MCU machine anytime soon. With "Dungeons & Dragons" they’ve given as good an audition as any.
"Dungeons & Dragons" is rated PG-13 for fantasy action/violence and some language. It opens in theaters on March 31. Runtime: 2 hours, 14 minutes.
Starring Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis
Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein | Written by Goldstein, Daley and Michael Gilio
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