Official attempts to wring film and television artistry out of the “Dungeons & Dragons” property have been a dice roll.
A 2002 film and sequel disappointed and largely disappeared. And that’s about it, unless one goes back to the early-to-mid ’80s and the very fine “Dungeons & Dragons” animated series, a show whose characters were as colorful as their costumes. Plus, it had charm, thanks largely to a tiny unicorn. “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” directed and co-written by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, whose credits include the script for “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” is the latest — and most expensive — attempt to bring some cinematic respectability to the longstanding brand.
“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” launched this year’s South by Southwest Film and TV Festival in Austin, Texas, and will open in theaters on March 31. The film stars Chris Pine as a part-time bard and full-time thief, and seeks to capture the often jovial-but-tense feel of a “Dungeons & Dragons” play session. Previously, that’s been a challenge for Hollywood.
Today, although the fantasy genre and the game itself have enjoyed a resurgence, “Dungeons & Dragons” influences film and television more often than it leads. See the recent “Arcane,” the Netflix series based on the “League of Legends” video game whose debut episode had a breezy camaraderie that echoed the magic and thievery of the long-standing role-playing game. Even the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films and their save-the-world-with-artifacts quests have felt indebted to the anything-goes magic of “D&D.”
And that says nothing of widely popular “actual play” videos and podcasts that show people playing through their adventures, including the web series “Critical Role,” which led to the well received animated series “The Legend of Vox Machina.” “Dungeons & Dragons” remains a powerful and guiding pop-culture force because of its often lighthearted unpredictability and the creativity it invites.
That’s because the game largely lives in our imaginations. Its worlds and characters are guides for us to create and improvise, and that also makes it a challenge to adapt. Though the “D&D” brand has had its share of popular books — the original “Dragonlance” titles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman are largely well regarded, as are many of R.A. Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels — the world is sprawling complex and mostly lives in the heads of its players.
We caught a screening of “Honor Among Thieves” ahead of of its SXSW premiere. While a proper review will be forthcoming, here are five fast reactions from the film. We aim to be as spoiler free as possible — and will not reveal some of the film’s biggest Easter eggs and nods to “D&D” history — but note there may be some light reveals in the text ahead.
The tone is upbeat and lively: Despite a two-hour run time, “Honor Among Thieves” feels pretty light-stepping, transitioning from quest to quest relatively quickly. Pine as the pure-hearted thief Edgin is in full-on charm mode, and Michelle Rodriguez’s brute barbarian fighter Holga is also often played for laughs. “Honor Among Thieves” is not, for instance, “Game of Thrones” serious, opting for a more family-friendly inflection.
The film also makes an effort to capture the togetherness and conviviality of the game. Often, before action sequences, there’s a moment for Pine to lead a brainstorming session on how best to strategize the battle. As regularly happens around the “D&D” table, all eyes turn to the mage, in this case Justice Smith’s “so-so sorcerer” Simon, leading Simon at one point to exasperatedly say that he’s tired of everyone thinking magic can cure all ills. And yet magic often does save the day, whether it’s a heavily used “hither thither” staff, essentially a teleportation item, or Sophia Lillis’ shape-shifting druid character Doric.
In what felt like a nod to the game and a hand-holding measure for audiences, when new items or magic are introduced, they are brought on screen with rules: here’s how it works, here’s it’s limitations. All that’s missing is a roll of the dice, but Edgin and team often go through multiple plans to get out of a pickle to simulate those poor rolls. Thankfully, when a spell is cast, typically someone will announce what it is. Note that tying a rope to a weapon often doesn’t work.
Here be dragons? Not so many, actually, and we won’t spoil the most ferocious of the lot. But it felt like a solid 45 to 55 minutes before we got our first glimpse of a dragon. There’s also not a proper dungeon, although there are caves and we do get to explore the depths of an arena. But fear not, there are creatures aplenty, and in a buoyant opening we meet an aarakocra, a humanoid bird race, and what appeared to be a pretty tame reptile humanoid — I was told it’s a man-snake known as a yuan-ti. The aarakocra is especially well done, even if the character, like much in “Honor Among Thieves,” is used as a punchline for a joke.
There’s plenty more, including a mighty owlbear, which is what you imagine and, yes, a tabaxi, and the human-like cat is as adorable as you’d hope. The tabaxi scene also leads to one of the film’s biggest laughs, courtesy of Simon’s attempts to court Doric. One qualm — and this is a proper minor spoiler — is that one dragon is used as a punchline for a fat joke, and I wish the film had been smarter than that. While I respect the filmmaker’s desire to upend expectations, even with fabled “D&D” characters such as dragons, poking fun at obesity wasn’t the play.
Ultimately, the downplaying of dragons allows the displacer beast — a black, panther-like creature with menacing tails that extend from its shoulders — to steal the spotlight.
The villains, the NPCs. There are some twists and, revealed early, a villain behind a villain. Ultimate motivations we’ll refrain from, but note that Hugh Grant’s Forge is played to exaggeratedly manipulative lengths. Grant, like Pine, Smith and generally the full cast, all look like they’re having a blast in the medieval-light costumes, so much so that “D&D” never gets truly tense. That is not a criticism, as the filmmakers are after a feather-light touch, which allows for a heartwarming, late-film moment to surprise.
The plot is set into motion with a dead wife trope, but the revenge quest at least allows for the film to have many a character whose motivations aren’t immediately clear. Regé-Jean Page’s Xenk is one who is at first treated with mistrust, but fans will know that a paladin knight ultimately fights for good. Page plays the character with an uptight stoicism that allows him to be the straight man for a series of jokes from Pine’s Edgin, but the character felt like a nod to the players’ table. Just when our heroes were feeling overmatched, a higher-classed fighter arrives to help level everyone up. And it leads to a scene clearly inspired by the “Indiana Jones” films.
Each play group is different. One of the most popular screen titles associated with “Dungeons & Dragons” is Prime Video’s “The Legend of Vox Machina,” an animated adaptation of an original campaign played by the folks of Critical Role. But just because they both fall under the “D&D” umbrella doesn’t mean they’re comparable — even beyond the differences inherent between a film and an animated series.
“Vox Machina” is meant for mature audiences, which means it features plenty of profanity, graphic violence and sex. The show manages to capture a level of unpredictability that can be achieved only by the decisions and dice rolls of actually playing the game.
“Honor Among Thieves” aims for the broader appeal of the more family-friendly PG-13. That said, both channel a similar irreverence for fantasy adventures — and make an argument for always having a paladin in your party.
Times staff writer Tracy Brown contributed to this story.