Judge Paul Pritchard is a level seven reviewer, with +9 typing speed and -1 grammar.
Our reviews of Dungeons & Dragons: The Animated Series (published September 3rd, 2009), Dungeons And Dragons (published May 3rd, 2001), and Dungeons And Dragons: The Complete Animated Series (published December 5th, 2006) are also available.
"Let their blood rain from the sky!"
Though immensely popular worldwide, the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons has never enticed me with its mammoth rulebooks and miniature Orcs. That said, I look back fondly on the awesome animated TV series it spawned, and so went into this double bill open minded. Having spent nearly four hours in the Kingdom of Izmer with Dungeons and Dragons: 2-Movie Collection, I can safely say it could have used more Venger.
Facts of the Case
In Dungeons and Dragons , the Empire of Izmer is on the verge of civil war. While Empress Savina (Thora Birch, Ghost World) looks to bring equality to the divided land, the powerful Mage Profion (Jeremy Irons, Damage) looks to consolidate his position of power by overthrowing the young Empress.
Learning of Profion's plot to overthrow her, Savina seeks the Rod of Savrille, an ancient artifact that grants the holder the power to control Red Dragons—the most powerful of the species—as she prepares to take on Profion's growing army. Unwitting thieves Ridley Freeborn (Justin Whalin, Lois and Clark) and Snails (Marlon Wayans, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) find themselves aiding the Empress when their latest heist goes awry. Pursued by Profion's henchmen—led by the dastardly Damodar (Bruce Payne, Highlander: Endgame)—our heroes must survive perilous traps, unscrupulous villains, and mythical beasts if they are to save their realm.
Picking up centuries after the events of the first film, Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God sees the return of Damodar, now one of the undead, seeking revenge for his earlier defeat. This time the McGuffin is a black orb that will allow Damodar to awaken the slumbering Dragon God. A group of heroes, led by Berek (Mark Dymond), sets out to thwart the evil sorcerers plans, and once again save the kingdom.
Dungeons and Dragons, released theatrically in 2000, was doomed even before the cameras started rolling. As is so often the case, the film—blessed with a decent cast and a ready-made fan base—was built on an underdeveloped screenplay, inconsistent in tone, and desperately lacking in originality. Sadly, projected onto the big screen, albeit with a limited budget, these flaws, which must have seemed surmountable at the time, are magnified tenfold—and yet, though the film is certainly poor, it's not the complete stinker history suggests it to be; in fact, it's actually quite watchable and occasionally hints at a much better movie lurking below the numerous layers of crap.
In terms of story, this is standard genre fare, with the forces of good and evil clashing over the fate of a magical realm. Unlike the films it riffs on, which includes everything from Dragonslayer and Raiders of the Lost Ark, to a blatant "Cantina" (Star Wars) ripoff, Dungeons and Dragons lacks a sense of urgency. Not once does it feel like anything is at stake. However, the most pressing issue, and one born from the screenplays unevenness, is the feeling that the heroes and villains appear to be in completely different movies. While Snails, Ridley, and Elwood Gutworthy—a dwarf whose reasons for joining the mission are never really too clear—seem to think they're in a comedy, the villains are under the impression this is a serious production. Both are some way wide of the mark. Confusing matters further is Thora Birch's Empress Savina, who I'm sure is supposed to be central to the plot, but actually feels like she's come in from yet another movie entirely. She's like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, in that I think other characters acknowledged her presence, but looking back I can't be so sure.
Next on my list of gripes are the God-awful characters we are forced to endure, chief amongst them being the aforementioned Snails. Though he often does his best to make you forget, Marlon Wayans is a talented actor, as his turn in Requiem for a Dream proves. But here, as the comedy sidekick, Wayans is at his most oafish and annoying. It's not all Wayans' fault, though; Snails is a character so lacking in layers that an onion would look upon him with pity. Still, at least Snails makes an impression on you, unlike our hero, Ridley Freeborn. A bland, lifeless creation, the role of Ridley is heavily dependent on crummy wisecracks and actor Justin Whalin's good looks to remind us he's actually the guy we're meant to be rooting for.
Hindered massively by the screenplay, director Courtney Solomon turns in a film plagued by pacing issues. The film moves in fits and starts, rather than flowing naturally. The tonal shifts—again a symptom of the screenplay—are jarring, and the film never comes together as one cohesive piece. Some impressive CGI, with one or two really quite striking vistas, only serves to reveal a level of artistry lacking in the writing, directing, and acting. Action scenes are laughably incompetent, with fight choreography showing all the dexterity and skill of two chimps in a feces-flinging contest. Still, a few moments stand out, with the final showdown in particular helped massively by the sheer number of dragons onscreen.
Released five years after the first film, Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God first aired on the Sci-Fi channel before receiving a home video release. In sharp contrast to the original film's love for all things camp and crappy, Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God is a far more somber affair; even the returning Bruce Payne has jettisoned his lipstick to prove the point. The result of this is a far more balanced film, with a singular tone and more consistent pacing. It's also boring as hell. Yes, Dungeons and Dragons is trash, but its foibles make it almost redeemable. Wrath of the Dragon God is a sullen affair that even the least demanding of children will find tiresome.
Perhaps acknowledging that the original veered too closely to being a spoof of the fantasy genre, Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God is sure never to let a smile slip, and plays everything straight. Even when the day has been saved our heroes refuse to celebrate, the miserable sods. The limited budget ensures that actions scenes are kept to a minimum, and so the film is beset with lengthy scenes of dialogue that see characters speak a lot but never really say anything. When the time finally comes for a little action, the results are severely under whelming, its battles playing out with far less intensity than your average schoolyard scrap.
Shorn of Jeremy Irons' companionship, Bruce Payne's Damodar makes for a decidedly weak villain. Given top billing this time, Payne still finds himself with little screen time. The screenplay affords Payne little opportunity to interact with the heroes, and as such is mostly seen with his two prosthetic wearing underlings who pose zero threat. Still, at least Payne has some screen presence, which is more than can be said for the rest of the cast. Unlike the first film, the "champions" who join the heroic quest this time out make no impression at all on the viewer; their ineptitude is such that it made me look back nostalgically on Marlon Wayans performance.
Despite the half a decade that separates the two films, Wrath of the Dragon God features far weaker special effects than the original. The titular Dragon God looks like he was rendered on a Playstation 2, and—just like every other use of CGI in the film—never convincingly fits in with his surroundings. Speaking of which, the uninspiring sets and locations never convey the sense that we're in a fantasy world. It all just looks like some forest in Eastern Europe—Lithuania, if I were to be more precise.
Both films are presented in 1.85:1 1080P transfer. Dungeons and Dragons suffers from wildly differing picture quality, with nighttime shots particularly grainy with low levels of detail. Daytime shots fair better, with vibrant colors and a good level of detail. Shot digitally, rather than on film, Wrath of the Dragon God rarely shakes off its "made for TV" roots. The image is still sharp, but lacks much depth, despite a colorful transfer. The audio does more to impress, with the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack containing a great deal of oomph, particularly in the climactic moments of Dungeons and Dragons. The cheaper nature of the sequel's production means the sound mix is far flatter, and offers less use of rear speakers.
Split over two discs, each film comes complete with its own set of extras. Dungeons and Dragons features two audio commentaries, both featuring director Courtney Solomon; one has him joined by lead actor Justin Whalin while the other has cinematographer Doug Milsome and co-creator of the game, Dave Arneson. Any benefits of the commentaries are tempered by the lack of desire to actually sit through the film again. Next up we have several additional scenes, which, for various reasons, were cut from the final film. The disc is rounded out by a short featurette on the creation of the game, a short "making of," and a special effects breakdown. Offering up one of the most bizarre audio commentaries I've heard in some time, Wrath of the Dragon God kicks of its supplemental materials with a "Heroes Commentary," featuring Wizards of the Coast D&D Special Projects Manager Ed Stark and other D&D Players. Accompanying the commentary are two short featurettes: one being a "Making Of" and the other titled "The Arc," which features D&D co-creator Gary Gygax.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Finding the positives in a film like Dungeons and Dragons requires a loosening of one's standards. Appreciate the film for what it is, rather than what it aspires to be, and there are worse ways to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon. Key to enjoying the film is an appreciation for cheese and ham, both of which Jeremy Irons provides in abundance. Frequently resorting to a low-pitched growl that will be recognizable to anyone who has seen a five-year old having a tantrum, Dungeons and Dragons sees Irons sacrifice his good name for a paycheck, and God bless him, you have to love him for that. Bruce Payne, resplendent in a blue lipstick that suggests a former life as a member of a new romantic pop group, gives Irons all he's got in a contest to see just who can chew the most scenery. Much to my surprise Payne actually wins out, thanks largely to a sequence where he grimaces so hard, and for so long that I actually believed the guy was constipated rather than just acting. Even Richard O'Brien (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) turns up to mug mercilessly at the camera, while delivering his lines in the camp manner of a Sixties Batman villain.
Sadly, Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God is a child only its mother could love. It's awful, and if you were to see it begging on the streets, you'd be well within your rights to put your boot in its face.
It's staggering to see one, let alone two of these films given the upgrade to hi-def. One has to wonder whom exactly Warner Bros. is expecting this release will appeal to. Diehard Dungeons and Dragons players are not likely to appreciate two films that besmirch the good name of their favorite pastime, while everyone else is only likely to find any enjoyment from the "so bad it's almost good" original.
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