Sword and sorcery films have a hard time in theaters, and unless their name happens to be “Lord of the Rings” they are almost guarantee to be both a commercial and critical failure. Since the original “Dungeons & Dragons” film will be celebrating its twentieth birthday on December 8th–I thought that it was high time for a re:view. And what I found may surprise you.
Many people panned the film due to the cast, I disagree. You can critique the film on different levels but I feel that all around it had a good cast, one which seeing the material they were given to work with (story and script) made an admirable attempt at providing moviegoers with an enjoyable hour and forty-three minutes of entertainment.
For me personally, story was one of the biggest missteps in the endeavor. When I decided to review the film the mediocrity of its story was (even after 20 years) fresh in my thoughts. We have a long history, and a large body of work to draw from when you set down to create a DnD film, yet, what is presented on screen is a lukewarm generic sword and sorcery minus the epic. There should have been no wonder why a year later “Lord of the Rings” was such a cultural and commercial success. Even though its story was slowly nearing its hundredth birthday it offered something fresh, witty, and dramatic on every level.
You could spend more time dissecting the different reasons the film failed at the most basic level of story telling, but that has been done many times in the past.
I will say, however, that if you are looking for a good DnD story then you might want to look elsewhere (depending on your personal preference of course).
One aspect of the film has often been put under an unfair bit of scrutiny. Its humor.
I feel that the filmmakers had a clear understanding of the property they were adapting when they chose to add humor to the film. While it is impossible for to say what your DnD campaigns are like, but our games nearly always have a humorous component (either willingly or unwillingly) and we are not alone. Because of that humor was identified as a important aspect of the film.
This was also an attempt to make the film mainstream marketable. An idea that was in and of itself viable (Marvel has shown us what this can look like) though it placed the film in the category of fantasy/comedy.
You don’t need to be reminded that this is seen as one of the failing points of “Dungeons & Dragons,” as hardcore fans of the franchise felt patronized and general moviegoers were left scratching their heads.
No dragons or other animals were hurt or injured during the filming of this motion picture.
Production Quality 5/10
When you first see the opening credits roll in you have a feeling (at least 20 years ago) that you are in for a treat. And in truth some of the scenes given the the feeling that you are watching a high-budget film. Unfortunately they are few and far between. What you end up getting are scenes that look like they were pulled from “Xena” or “Hercules” and given a polish. And even the later seasons of both of those shows could compete on the same level as much of 2000’s outing into the world of “Dungeons & Dragons.”
Part of this comes down to the lower budget (only $45 million, LotR enjoyed $100 million per film) and the lack luster but pricey story.
One thing that should be noted is that the film’s cinematography is strikingly well done overall. As you watch the shots unfold and the story develop you are treated to the work of a competent film team.
At the time I quipped that they looked like they were pulled strait from television. They would have been better suited for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as “Xena” and Herc already had more realistic costumes by that point.
While they aren’t on the level of LotR they aren’t terrible either. You will see plenty of variation and the different classes come across as genuine if not slightly fake. They would be better suited for Larping session than a film which unfortunately drags the whole picture down.
The sets were well scouted and well built which is one reason why this category scores higher. One aspect needs to be addressed as it boarders the line between set design and VFX and that is set extension. As you watch the story unfold you will see some well done sets which are swallowed up by terrible CG sets. This is certainly a side-effect of the low budget but it could have been rectified by choosing to show less, thus grounding the film more and saving for scenes that actually could have profited from having more resources.
This leads us to the effects as a whole.
You can tell that most of the film’s small budget was invested in the then burgeoning role of CG effects in cinema. While they aren’t bad … they are not particularity good either. And you can tell that the cast has difficulties at times interacting with their non-existent surrounding or co-stars.
Being a film about dragons you think that they would be where they placed their effort, they should have been the pinnacle of quality for the time but that is not the case.
The dragon effects appear to be pulled from an early 90s children’s film which is a shame. While I can overlook poor quality CG if it is well designed that can not be said about the dragons seen in this film. They neither have the charm of those found countless illustrations found throughout the franchise, nor do they offer something unique and exciting.
For comparison “DragonHeart” was released four years earlier and produced on an estimated $57 million dollar budget, only $12 million more than DnD and at a time when CG was truly in its infancy (read more expensive).
Final Verdict 6/10
Final verdict? Are you ready? It isn’t a terrible movie, it isn’t a great one either. If you are a fan* of the game and/of franchise you will find something in here that will, at the very least, amuse you.
Either you see the film as setting the foundation for the future or as a setback, regardless, this entry is better than you remember.
*I will put a clause to that statement with regards to fandom. I think we as fans have a certain insight (read “expectation”) into the material, this gives us more room to appreciate the nods and in jokes. At the same time we sometimes place unreasonable expectations on the filmmakers to provide us with what we want, ignoring the fact that we as a fan base do not as a whole make up the bulk of viewers a film needs to be successful. This leaves the filmmakers in a tricky position, appeasing the fans and creating something that is also commercially viable. Usually, they take the middle ground, to everyone’s chagrin and we are left with neither group can fully enjoy.