A Review by Noah Antwiler
"I have a very bad feeling about this," I said on the way to the theater. My brother and I were making our weekly trip to the movie theater to see Dungeons & Dragons. Never before had the D&D license been used to officially push a movie, and undoubtedly a lot of gamers were expecting good things out of it. Though I think there was a lot of skepticism and pessimism from the time the movie was announced. As a rule, fantasy movies are usually terrible. Until the world was blessed with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the best examples of fantasy were Krull, Willow, and MAYBE Dragonslayer (and most people can't even stand those films). Actually, the reason this movie was ever made remains a mystery to me. You have to realize that producers only spend money on a project if they truly think they're going to profit from it. A lot of analysis into demographics goes on when a project is proposed to see what core audience will attend it.
So Dungeons & Dragons comes across the table. Let's think about the core audience: Girls? Nah. Senior Citizens? Nah. Just gamers. Not just gamers, either. RPG Gamers. The minority of a minority of young men, and even fewer women. Debate the size of this demographic if you will, but do not question that the population is much less than the targeted audience of the standard teeny-bopper princess movie, or your stock Vin Diesel flick. Other fantasy movies at least had more applicable demographics; Lord of the Rings appealed to a lot more people-- book fans, young men, old men, and the action movie crowd, etc. But D&D? I'm just amazed it ever got out of pre-production, that's all. It's a failing proposition any way you slice it unless you're taking a new angle at the problem, since you're just not going to make money off it.
A second negative note crossed my mind about the plotting of the movie. It was a totally new story set in a world called Izmer, which is clearly nothing like any Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting ever published. It was an untested story in an unfamiliar setting. In a movie that's meant to represent D&D, gamers are sure to expect that certain iconic characters or places be represented. Something gamers can nudge each other knowingly about when they hear a reference to the Temple of Elemental Evil or the Rod of Seven Parts. But rather than making gamers feel at home walking the familiar paths of Greyhawk, we were thrust into the freakish, stupid atmosphere of D&D Third Edition's "dungeonpunk" motif. Perhaps a safe route would have been to adapt one of the popular D&D old-school-era novels and borrow such famous literary characters such as Drizz't, Tanis Half-Elven and Tasslehoff Burrfoot, or (God help us) produce one of Gygax's Gord the Rogue novels. Something established, published, you know? I don't really think you would have had to yank on on Salvatore's, Weis' or Hickman's leg real hard to get one of those novels adapted for screen. But they didn't do that. Once you get Hollywood script doctors done with a story, and they've cut the film into 90 minutes, I dread any fantasy or sci-fi movie that doesn't come from an established popular source. A lot of people agreed here, but went out of loyalty to the brand.
But that's not the worst thing that I knew was gonna suck before I even walked into the theater. And his name was all over the movie poster: Marlon Wayans. And let me tell you something, I've never been more wrong about that guy. Say what you will about the movie or Marlon, the Snails character was actually very entertaining and probably the best part of this awful, awful movie. I never thought I'd be so positive about a character who might has well have "COMIC RELIEF" Wizard Marked on his forehead, but Snails did his job, played his alignment, and sacrificed himself so the twerpy lead beau could escape. It takes a good player to take his beating like a man, even though the guy who killed him was a bald, blue lipstick-wearing ponce. He tried, and that scores points with me. BIG TIME boos to the "hero" who ran off to let his buddy get slaughtered. That ain't how The Spoony One operates, no sir. I got your back if the gates of Hell themselves are openin' ahead of us.
Hell, Snails was a better character than the main hero, the main villain, the princess, the brute villain, and the irritatingly underused "The Dwarf." He paid his dues, so Marlon is OK in The Spoony Book. Viva la Snails. SO LEAVE HIM ALONE!
So what do I tell you that you don't already know? Let's see. We've got the Super Duper Mystic MacGuffin Sceptre that has the power to summon and control every dragon everywhere, and naturally, enable anyone evil and German to completely dominate the planet. Thus we entrust this awesome power to a 104 lbs. combat untrained princess and her sissy elf bodyguard. (I'm generalizing, but you get the point). So the entire movie involves our brave heroes trying to stop the wizard, kill his fighter, stop the dragons, and try to push for a sequel.
You had the things that made every D&D fan retch along the way. A group of beholders that against all common D&D knowledge and reason, serve as easily-bypassed watchdogs. (Beholders are masterminds and tyrants of the Underdark! And I thought they couldn't be surprised or something. ;P) A thief that doesn't backstab. NO clerics to be found whatsoever. A TWO ROOM dungeon that any idiot might pass given a moment to look it over (just so we could indeed say there were DUNGEONS and DRAGONS in the film, yes?) The boring, contrived idea of an adventure to a) pick up the world-destroying artifiact and to b) save the princess from the evil wizard. This idea hasn't been used in anyone's tabletop D&D game in decades just because it's so horribly cliché! C'mon seriously, I expect more from a Dungeon Master than this, and I certainly expect more from a movie made to promote the game.
I wonder how the test screenings for this one went. Did it have gamers? Did the gamers hate it more than the non-gamers? Oh, it had to be lookin' bleak for the producers in the weeks before the movie's release. They HAD to know they had a bomb on their hands from negative test screenings, and they HAD to know that this would destroy any chance of a sequel's success. I've heard word of a sequel being proposed-- trust me, all they have to do is look at the money they lost on this one before they shelve the idea quicker than an Emeril sitcom.
Anyway, I think what I enjoy to rant about regarding this movie are the villains. Starting with the big dopey fighter with blue lipstick, who my brother started laughing at immediately along with the rest of the audience. Whoever did the costuming and storyboarding must have really thought that breaking into Prince's wardrobe and Liza Manelli's makeup case to dress the guy was a good idea. I mean yeah, it was frightening, but not in that good way. Think about the flavor text for this guy in your D&D game.
DM: A broad shouldered man stands before you, his chiseled frame and grim visage exuding malevolence. He wears dark leather and bears a sword on his hip. His face looks as if chiseled from stone, every line deep with hatred and anger. His shadowed eyes and blue lips purse as if to--
Tandem: Wait wait, he's wearing lipstick?
Dwarf: Damn, even the bard's not sissy enough to wear makeup
Halfing: HAAAAH HA HA! Is he wearing curlers?
DM: No, he's bald! Shut up! He's really scary looking!
Dwarf: Pff, sure, sure he is. Bald with blue lips. Grim visage my ass! You want this one?
Tandem: Yeah I got it, but you handle the scrawny-ass overacting wizard.
I *really* do like Jeremy Irons as an actor-- his stuff in Die Hard 3 was brilliant!-- but AWWWW man was D&D wrong for him. He really hammed it up to get some heat as a villain, but just ended up being silly and as a goofy sound clip for my computer. His performance says it all in the line that still makes me belly laugh when I hear it: "You can RUN your ladyship!!! But you'll NEVER!!! RUN!!! FARRRRR!!!! ENOUGH!!!!!"
What I also enjoyed about his character was that none of the other wizards in the wise elder council ever suspect that he's evil. The guy walks in to dark, wicked music, has narrow shifty eyes, and even gives low evil mastermind laughs when he says innocuous and threatening things. "Mmm-hm-hm-hm...haaa ha ha ha!!" He's SO OBVIOUSLY EVIL, and the rest of the wizards are sticking up for his reputation, stunned at the accusation that the velvet cloak-wearing weirdo with heavy eyeliner and shadowed eyes could possibly be wicked and set on world domination.
I mean hello, Know Alignment spell anyone? Zone of Truth? Anything? These are high level archmages!
People already say that CGI is overused in most modern films. I'm inclined to disagree since it's becoming more and more seamless and hard to spot. I think it's hard for people to suspsend disbelief anymore when they see something done on-screen that LOOKS excellent, but is physically impossible to set up, hence it must be CGI and therefore distracting. Of course it's fake, most of that stuff is impossible. But you can't fault CG when it *looks* good. Of course, that's the trick. But I think most people who complain about CGI are the people who complain whenever they know it must have been used. I think I understand why, but the logic falls flat when I consider how else some of these amazing things I see on screen could have been done, and how fake THAT would look.
Anyway, I have no problem with CGI as long as it looks good-- and here, it didn't look good. The final act featured the bazillions of dragons razing the city. I haven't seen dragons looking this bad since Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. We're talking bad CGI on the level of Anaconda (you have to see it to believe it).
It's a really hard thing to do well, and my hypocrisy is exposed regarding the Star Wars prequels. I think the CGI looks great, but there's just so bloody much of it that it looks like they're in a weird Reverse Who Framed Roger Rabbit world, where everything is a cartoon and the people are real. The animation was so pervasive and so distracting, that there wasn't a second that I wasn't reminded that every single actor was standing in front of a green screen, talking to a tennis ball glued to a wall. Pretending to dodge an imaginary arc welding arm. Blocking an imaginary blaster bolt. Point is, CG is like mustard. It's ok here and there, but too much is just plumb distracting.
I walked out of the film very frustrated. A lot of people get back to their cars after watching a bad movie and say in joking "*I* could have written something better than that!" But I guarantee you every gamer in the audience has *been* in a better game than that. And every gamer said those very words, and meant it. "I could have written something better than that!"
And you're right. You could have.
Reflections After the Experiment
My brain has a defense mechanism to profoundly bad movies. The best comparison I can give of this phenomenon to the layman is when you're in a college lecture you don't want to be in, and you actually discover that you've fallen asleep with your eyes open. As soon as I realized the Dungeons & Dragons was one of the worst movies ever (and that didn't take long), I entered a state of torpor through which only a few facts burned themselves into my memory. After all, I can make fun of movies at home. In the theater, I always remain respectful and keep my fool mouth shut. This means that I'm forced to sit there and agonize through these movies in complete silence. And in the case of D&D, solitude, because there was NOBODY in the theater. I had always remembered that the movie was foul, but until I sat down to record the experiment, I had not remembered how hair-pullingly odious it really was.
I admit, it's easy for me to point at a movie and just label it as "odious," but there's no defending this movie. One defense that I heard was that this movie was intentionally campy, meant to be populated with anachronistic dialogue, over-the-stratosphere acting villains, and a handsome square-jawed hero saving the prissy girlfriend. Along the way, we make the world a better place. And I admit, I've played in some terrible D&D games that included all of these things. But I sincerely doubt that they set out to make D&D with the motivation "Let's make a movie replicating one of the worst gaming experiences anyone could be exposed to." There have been other movies that did that much better. The D&D movie was, I think, one of two things:
1) A serious and completely botched effort to tell a sweeping epic of the land of Izmer, a land torn asunder by social class differences.
2) A hastily-produced and ill-planned commercial to sell Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition.
I went on at great length about how anyone could have made a better movie than this, and I meant it. But looking again, I'm stunned at how much talent was involved in this movie, and how much of it was wasted. You had Malcolm McDowell in a bit part, Tom Baker (from Doctor Who fame) in a bit part, Jeremy Irons, and Thora Birch, who was in American Beauty, one of the most beloved movies by the Academy of that year. How do you WASTE that much talent?
There's so much wrong with this movie it's hard to know where to begin, and where exactly to tack the blame. The acting was so over the top and laughably bad, I have to wonder whether the director instructed the actors to ham it up, or whether the actors were given that much latitude. Jeremy Irons is a good actor, but his acting in this movie is absolutely jaw-dropping. He not only chews the scenery, he eats it, spits it up, stomps on it, puts it back in his mouth, and feeds it to Blue Lips like a bird feeding its babies. Thora Birch gives one of the most uninspired, uninteresting, wooden Ben Steinish deliveries of any actress I've ever heard. Marlon Wayans is a horribly anachronistic character with a 20th century dialect and mannerisms. The rest of the actors put on characters that are cartoonish eye-bugging cretins that are so two-dimensional they might as well be cardboard stand-ups.
The story itself is barely adequate to fill a 22-minute pilot for a TV show. The basic plot is "Wizard wants to rule the world. Needs a sceptre to do so. Hero must find magic weapon to kill wizard." You can see how thin the plot is because the majority of the filming is obviously padding with extraneous and frustrating subplots. We spend a great deal of time with unnecessary additions to the plot that just feel tacked on: the search for the Dragon's Eye (needed to OPEN THE DOOR to the magic weapon), the political intrigue, the Blue-Lipped man racing the clock to capture Ridley before the snake in his head eats his brain, and the myriad of eye-rolling scenes about social class and racial tensions. I'm not sure if there was a message that was trying to poke through, but the goofy elf/dwarf/human racial tensions barely qualify as racist undertones, and the social class dominion of the mages over the commoners just seems implausible. There is so much padding in this movie that I was screaming at times for the movie to just get on with it.
The directoral decisions in this movie are also mysterious. Who in the blue hell decided that what we needed was a bald Darth Vader ripoff named Damodar-- but wait, he's not scary. I got it! BLUE LIPS! The movie also seems very low-budget, with poor production values for the weapons, armor, and costuming. It just doesn't look good. The armor looks plastic, the costumes are poor, and the makeup is hilarious. I think they really blew their wad on the CG, hoping it would give the film a more epic scope and make the world look really fantastic. Unfortunately, it all just looks like bad CG, and the actors are either surrounded by shoddy sets, or shoddy CG rendered backgrounds on blue screen. The other decisions were to diverge completely from canon Dungeons & Dragons rules, with only a few nods to the actual rules such as a thief picking a lock, or getting in a fatal backstab. By alienating your only fanbase, the fanbase becomes ZERO. Dungeons & Dragons is one of those genres where you must follow the source material religiously. The makers of Lord of the Rings knew this, and to this day are paying the price on the Internet for every last divergence from the novels.
What I really think happened to this movie, is that everything went wrong. The script was in a shambles, the animation shots weren't working out, the deadline was coming up, and finally everyone threw their hands up and said "To hell with it," and decided to put the movie in the can real quick and try to have a good time so they can go home early. The director just let the actors take the brakes off and do whatever they want. Jeremy Irons just read his crap dialogue and went for the most overdramatic Snidley Whiplash villain possible. Blue Lips decided to ooze smug and smarm to an incredible degree. Everyone else did their own thing, and the result is a truly sad collection of scenes that would have been laughed off a high school stage.