New Line // 2000 // 107 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // May 3rd, 2001
This is no game.
I have been an avid roleplaying game fan for more than 20 years, and like many others, played Dungeons and Dragons extensively. I've read the books, the novels, played the computer versions, and am very well steeped in the lore of the game and the world created more than 30 years ago. I was a guaranteed target audience for this film version, finally released after many years of waiting for someone to take the license and make a movie. I was ready to bend over backwards to like this picture, and will probably still be very forgiving in this review. But I have to say up front that this film is a muddled compromise that didn't and couldn't please either the die-hard D&D player or the casual filmgoer. A muddled story, poor editing, a neophyte director, less-than-stellar special effects, and a couple poor casting choices have combined to make the movie a shadow of what it could have been. That said, the shadow of what should have been is still better than I'd been led to believe by the universal critical opinion at the time of its release. If you haven't seen the movie, and judging by the box office receipts you haven't, you now have a chance to see it on DVD, with another fine New Line Platinum Series disc.
In the land of Izmer, the Empress (Thora Birch, American Beauty) rules by sharing power with the Council of Mages, but wants to make everyone, Commoner or Mage alike, equal under the law. But Profion (Jeremy Irons) has other plans. Being an evil megalomaniac and all, he wants to control dragons and use them to take over the Empire. To do that he requires a rod of dragon control, and hopes to get his hands on the one the Empress uses to control gold dragons, offsetting the magical power of the wizards. When that proves unlikely, he has a backup plan: to find the Rod of Savrille, which controls the evil red dragons.
But wait, because that is only half the story. On the other, poorer side of Sumdall, the capital city of Izmer, lives Ridley (Justin Whalen, Lois and Clark) and Snails (Marlon Wayans), two young thieves. In the world of haves and have-nots, these two are "gotta-gets," and are willing to use most larcenous means to obtain what they want and need. They even brave a burglary attempt on the School of Mages, hoping to get their hands on some expensive trinkets. There they are intercepted by Marina (Zoe McLellan, Inventing the Abbotts), a young mage apprentice. Before they can get to know each other, Damodar (Bruce Payne, Highlander: Endgame), leader of the Crimson Brigade guard unit and flunky of Profion, arrives to steal the scroll revealing the location of the evil artifact. Marina escapes with the scroll with Ridley and Snails in tow (literally), and meets up with Elwood, a Dwarven warrior along the way. The reluctant thieves and the mage are on the way to find the rod, with both the Elven tracker Norda (Kristen Wilson, Tyson) and Damodar and his troops in pursuit. Sounds just like a D&D campaign, where several unlikely companions are thrown together on a quest, with differing objectives.
Dungeons and Dragons (the movie) is the brainchild of director Courtney Solomon, who spent the last ten years trying to get the film made. He got the license to use the D&D trademark, got the story together, and managed to get financing without giving up control. He found the locations in Prague and got permission to use them, and did a lot of the work getting the film together on his own. Once he signed on Joel Silver as executive producer, the way was made smoother, but the film is still largely his doing. I feel bad for him, because certainly his heart was in the right place.
The film isn't as bad as I had been led to believe, though that is faint praise. In fact, the movie has moments and scenes that are wonderfully exciting, and some of the performances and special effects are quite good. Even the worse parts of the film have redeeming factors, but often fail on small decisions that prove distracting or for simple lack of enough money.
Justin Whalen is really the star of the film, and I have to admit he did a fine job. He was believable in both the more dramatic and the action scenes, had a fine range of emotions, and is probably the single best thing there is to see here. Zoe McLellan also turned in a good performance, and others in the cast each had at least moments of fine acting. Lee Arenberg (Warriors of Virtue) was a very believable dwarf, at least in the D&D sense of the word.
The film depends almost equally on locations and computer graphics for the settings, and at least the locations were excellent. The interiors of the buildings were lushly decorated, fit well into the fantastical world depicted, and made excellent backdrops for the story. I especially like what they did with the Opera House in Prague, and the Cathedral of Bones, which really is decorated with 40,000 human bones of plague victims from the Middle Ages. Wonderful locations. The real life sets likewise fit into the tale well.
That leaves the computer graphics settings. Some exteriors are done on the computer, some for the simple reason of not being able to afford a helicopter. Where the computer is simply trying to mirror a real life location, it works well. Others tried to show a much more fantastic fantasy city, and failed miserably because the shots were obviously computer drawn and not close to photo-realistic. That was an example of where money was spent on the wrong things. You only use a special effect if you can make it convincing. We'll get to that later.
Some of the special effects were quite good, however. The effects of magic spells were very nice, particularly the magic portals. One of the best scenes in the film has Ridley in a maze filled with deadly traps, done with practical (real) effects that were reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark. More money to have more scenes like this could have saved the film all by itself. D&D fans will instantly recognize the Beholder, a monster that is a floating ball covered in eyes on stalks, and the moments where they are in the film raised the excitement level by themselves. The finale is one example of blue screening that worked; the sky is filled with fire and smoke with flying dragons all about, and makes a nice backdrop for the final confrontation.
We'll get to the rest of the film later; now lets move on to the DVD presentation. New Line has issued the film as part of the Platinum Series, which means that you will get not only a first rate anamorphic transfer and a terrific soundtrack, but plenty of extra content as well. The image is always sharp and finely detailed. Edges are clean with no edge enhancement problems. There were small amounts of grain in a few darker moments, but these moments passed quickly. Otherwise expect outstanding clarity with an impressive, three-dimensional look. Colors are dazzling and vibrant, from the golds on coins or items to the blacks and reds of the costumes.
The transfer was impressive, but the soundtrack was even better. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is extremely aggressive, and provides a spherical soundfield almost every moment. This is what we buy surround sound equipment for, to be totally immersed in the audio experience. Demo disc material here.
As usual with New Line's Platinum Series, there are a lot of extra features to look through. Starting up the collection are two documentary features. The first is "Let the Games Begin," and for 15 minutes tells you about the history of fantasy roleplaying. For someone not acquainted with the gaming world this is a nice introduction, and might even make a nice thing to watch before seeing the film. Since I actually started my writing career doing articles and reviews about roleplaying games, there wasn't a lot for me to learn though. Next is a 20-minute "Making of" feature, which focuses much of its time on the special effects. If you didn't learn enough about the CG dragons from the feature, you can explore several scenes where you can look at the special effects in rough form, animatic form, and the final scene using your multi-angle feature. DVD-ROM features include an interactive game and a demo for Baldur's Gate 2, a computer game based on the D&D license. The theatrical trailer and cast filmographies are also included.
That's not nearly all the extra features, but I want to put the rest in the context of the film. There are two feature-length commentary tracks, both with director/producer Courtney Solomon and D&D co-creator Dave Arneson (the other co-creator is the better known Gary Gygax). The first commentary adds Justin Whalen, the star of the film. It is the more fun of the two and concentrates on stories from the shooting and the cast, though there is a fair amount of information about how the film was made as well. The second adds cinematographer Doug Milsome, and concentrates on lighting and how the film was shot. It is interesting from a technical standpoint, but not nearly as much fun. Here are the problems with both: the commentaries were done before the film's release, and they were all on a high about the film, and talked endlessly about the sequel they wanted to make. I felt bad for them all, especially Courtney Solomon, because they didn't yet know how badly the movie would tank, losing nearly $20 million from the box office. The other problem with both tracks was the editing in of comments by Dave Arneson; few of his comments were screen specific, and had a lot more to do with the game than the film. His comments were fitted in between others about the film, and gave the tracks a distinctly disjointed feeling.
The remaining extra feature contains 11 deleted scenes, which you can watch with or without director's commentary. Several of these cut scenes needed to be kept, while other scenes that stayed in the film could have been left out. Some of these editing choices really lowered the quality of the film. One of the big problems in the film is how disjointed it is; as one example, our heroes escape into the sewers and Damodar commands guards be put at all the exits. The next thing you see they are already out of the sewers without a hint of what happened before. The scene where they are in the sewers is among the deleted scenes, as are other scenes that would have prevented other serious gaps in the storyline. Things just appear and you are left to guess how they happened. Poor choices.
Indeed, poor choices abound in the film. In an effort to attract both D&D game fans and the casual movie-watcher, they managed to muddle up the story to exclude both. D&D players know what to expect in their world, and that world is one of the best documented ones in fiction. Literally thousands of pages of reference material have set the rules of the world down. Yet for some strange reason Solomon decided to mess with some fundamental aspects of the D&D mythos. The whole system that magic works by in the game is scrapped, leaving D&D players like myself screaming at the screen. Dragons are likewise changed to be mere beasts that fight in packs rather than the intelligent, solitary creatures the game portrays. Instead of a dragon being a thrilling part of an adventure or scene, they are relegated to being artillery and pawns for the main actors. Elves are now changed as well from the game; now they are somehow magical creatures that don't use spells the way humans do. Mind you, some of these changes would have been fine in another film, but not in one called "Dungeons and Dragons." D&D players were probably turned off as I was by these changes, which took me completely out of the story and left me frustrated. Casual filmgoers were given quite a bit more comic relief than the film might otherwise have warranted, especially in the character of Snails, played by Marlon Wayans. The stupid hat he wears, the squeaky voice he uses, and the bumbling way about him were all for comic effect, but cheapened the character later on when he must grow up. I'm not panning all of Wayans's performance; he had several scenes and other moments where he dropped the clown act and was very credible. Poor choices again.
I've got more. You know you're in trouble with your budget when you are using CGI to replace shots that should have been done with a helicopter. Good CGI work is the most expensive part of a film, far more expensive than leasing a chopper for a few days. Bad CGI is cheap and is easy to do, but looks poor and unconvincing. Some of the special effects are just that. I'm not familiar with the firm that did the computer effects, and some of them worked well enough, but the ones that didn't really hurt the film. I'd give anything to have the film redone with Industrial Light and Magic behind the graphics and see what could have been. Without the budget for the best, choices should have been made to exclude the poor effects and to find some cheaper way to do the job without them. You don't have to have a vista scene of a fantasy city, not if the result is an obvious graphic. I realize money could have fixed a lot of the problems and a big enough budget could have made the film a constant spectacle. Several key scenes couldn't even be shot because of the lack of money -- scenes that could have really made this an exciting film.
I mentioned Marlon Wayans and the choices made with his character hurting the film. He isn't the most egregious example among the supporting cast. At first I was willing to forgive the over-the-top ranting of the Jeremy Irons character; after all, an evil wizard is supposed to be like that. Later the evil artifact makes him even more maniacal, and he goes so far over the top as to get lost. I wouldn't have known it was the rod causing this without the commentary track; at the least the film should have better explained it. Or Solomon could have reined in Irons' performance a bit. He's out there munching scenery like it's his last meal, and we don't know why. The Damodar character was a fairly convincing villain, but his cape and his blue lipstick totally distracted me at every turn. Why did his cape look like it was hanging on a giant coat hanger attached to his back? And who in the name of God decided he should wear blue lipstick? I couldn't take the character seriously at all when I kept staring at his lips. I could go on and on about costuming choices; the little helper elves wearing skulls on their faces were bizarre in the extreme. I had only one complaint about the dwarf -- either he was too tall or the actors playing humans were too short; he stood every bit as tall as the other main characters. They call them dwarves for a reason. At least they could have done something to make him look shorter when standing next to the other characters. Last, and least, is Thora Birch, horribly miscast as the Empress Savina. She did a fine job in American Beauty, but her rosebud mouth and pudgy cheeks made for a very unconvincing monarch. Her emoting was wooden and her pronunciations for freedom of the common people fell flat because she didn't have the charisma to carry the role. It takes a special person to carry that air of majesty, and she didn't have it.
The end result is a muddled and disjointed story, too wrong in several fundamental areas to please the hard-core D&D fans and too over the top and strange for the casual filmgoer. The CGI shots that were obvious graphics took away from the film, and the editing created gaps that kept the story incoherent. These are mistakes that ultimately land on the shoulders of Courtney Solomon; it is unfortunate that he had such a technical film to start his directorial career with. It is even more unfortunate that the Dungeons and Dragons license has been sullied with this film and will likely prevent someone taking the franchise and doing it justice for some time to come. The funny thing is that if he'd taken out the Beholder monsters he could have done the whole film without the license as a generic fantasy adventure vehicle, and left the D&D name intact for a bigger budgeted film.
I can't really recommend the film; its faults outweigh its good points. There are some good points in there, and the disc itself is great, so I'd go so far as to recommend a rental. At least you can see for yourself if it is as bad as the critics claimed it was after its theatrical release.
Courtney Solomon is convicted of poor decision making with the story and flow of the film. The editor is likewise charged and found guilty. New Line is acquitted of all charges, as they take films nobody watched and do a better job with them than most major studios do with blockbuster titles.
Review content copyright © 2001 Norman Short; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Commentary Tracks
* Deleted Scenes
* Special Effects Construction
* Cast and Crew Info
* DVD-ROM content
* Wizards of the Coast Movie Site
* Wizards of the Coast Movie Site