When it feels like D&D is unsuitable for adaptation, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves comes and takes everyone by surprise. Courtney Solomon’s film was largely panned back in 2000, and most people don’t even realize there are direct-to-video sequels (perhaps it’s better that way). However, D&D’s presence remains a huge part of pop culture; its DNA can be found in everything from video games to Stranger Things.
John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein‘s directorial follow-up to Game Night is nothing short of agreeable. The pair, along with co-writer Michael Gilio, are clearly D&D fans. Yet they ensure even novices don’t feel left out. The film’s unceasing humorous tone and stimulating sequences make what always seemed like confusing gameplay a great deal more digestible. The directors don’t only pander to the uninitiated, though; fans of the game will undoubtedly find something, if not a lot, to like here.
After Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez‘s characters make their daring escape at the start of Honor Among Thieves, the story begins its quest. Edgin the Bard (Pine) wants to make up for his past by finding some kind of MacGuffin that can raise the dead. Joining him on this journey is his trusty barbarian ally Holga (Rodriguez) as well as a magician with a serious learning curve, Simon (Justice Smith), and a shapeshifting druid named Doric (Sophia Lillis). Eventually the core warriors also acquire the help of the dashing and adept paladin Xenk (Regé-Jean Page). Opposing this team of unlikely heroes is the duplicitous Forge (Hugh Grant), who has since become a surrogate parent for Edgin’s estranged daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman), and wicked wizard Sofina (Daisy Head). So there is no shortage of personalities in this film; no two characters are ever alike, although no one is particularly complex. Honor keeps everything surface-level with only the necessary amount of emotion to balance out its near incessant sense of comedy.
This film is an obvious exercise in doing the Marvel model without any Marvel characters. More specifically, this is Guardians of the Galaxy filtered through the world of D&D. The inspiration, however, is efficient, not to mention palatable. Sure, the jokes are corny and unyielding, but on the whole they are heartening. On the other hand, substantial worldbuilding is also sacrificed to keep the story always moving. A film like this would do well to explore its own universe more. Nevertheless, what little is shown of this existence, artificial or practical, is inviting. The spaces tend to feel open and the colors are vibrant. It’s a refreshing aesthetic in modern genre cinema.
The comedic route may not sit well with those expecting anything D&D related to be consistently serious. Yet, anyone who’s ever played a game, imaginary or video based, will know humor is as crucial to the whole experience as sheer skill. And most of all, there’s no handbook rule that says fun is forbidden. By contrast, a wisecracking D&D film should be welcomed, not shunned for evading today’s default grimdark style. It’s true that Honor Among Thieves imitates more than innovates; there’s nothing here that can be deemed unique. That’s entirely all right, though. Daley and Goldstein aren’t afraid to get silly, they introduce a likable clan of mirthful and appealing characters, and they don’t forget to deliver high-speed and towering set pieces. And if this one journey signals a sea change in Hollywood’s approach to high fantasy, then that’s one more reason to see Honor Among Thieves.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves had its world premiere at South by Southwest 2023 before opening in theaters nationwide, starting on March 31.
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