The fantasy genre has positively soared across movies, TV and video games in recent years. Thanks to the cultural phenomenon of Game of Thrones, we’ve now become positively saturated with sophisticated, adult-oriented fantasy adaptations, from The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power to His Dark Materials to The Witcher to Game of Thrones’ own spin-off efforts like the recent House of the Dragon. Truly, modern media has become a paradise of swords-and-sorcery, one primed to rival the recent glut of superhero media in turn.
This is why a brand new Dungeons & Dragons movie couldn’t have come at a better time. Considering the incredibly rich lore behind the various Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game editions, one might logically expect a new Dungeons & Dragons adaptation to follow suit with so many other blockbuster fantasy properties these days to boot, namely being dark, mature, violent, and packed with so much backstory that you’ll practically need a fan wiki ready in order to understand the minutiae behind its world and characters. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves follows none of these trends, and that’s exactly what makes it feel like such a refreshing change of pace for the modern fantasy genre.
Instead, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves feels like a bit of a throwback to simpler fantasy movies from around the turn of the millennium, i.e. Labyrinth, The Princess Bride, The Neverending Story, and even the Brendan Fraser-fronted remake of The Mummy, to name some examples. It’s still packed with all sorts of nods to the intricate lore of Dungeons & Dragons, but fortunately, you don’t ever need to have rolled a D20 to enjoy this new adaptation, let alone follow it. Dungeons & Dragons fans may finally be getting the feature film adaptation that they deserve, following 2000’s own ill-fated Dungeons & Dragons movie, but it’s uninitiated audiences that are perhaps in for an even bigger treat here, as Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves has all the makings of one of this year’s best sleeper hit crowd-pleasers.
The most surprising strength behind Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is its sense of humour. This is a very funny movie, particularly for fantasy nerds.
Even if you’re not normally fussed with spell books and sword bearers however, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves functions very well as an underdog comedy on its own merits, beyond the use of the Dungeons & Dragons license. It just happens to take place in a world where fantasy conventions are commonplace. Mostly. On that note, it’s inspired how well Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves plays with the idea of its characters finding fantastical things like magic pretty mundane. It can sometimes work against the movie at times, granted, as audiences are left to absorb the discarded imagination from a bunch of characters that don’t really bat an eye at, say, asking corpses plot-relevant questions through a simple enchantment. When Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves successfully hits that scriptwriting nexus behind relatable complication and fictitious hyperbole though, it pokes at a comedic sweet spot that few other recent movies outside of the Marvel mould have successfully managed to touch on reliably.
“This is a very funny movie, particularly for fantasy nerds.”
Like I said, you don’t need any previous Dungeons & Dragons knowledge to laugh at this movie’s jokes either. This is thanks to co-directors and co-writers, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein carefully picking the right combination of recognizable fantasy elements, and fantasy elements unique to the Dungeons & Dragons universe, but managing to make both equally humourous and engaging. At the end of the day, the continent of Faerun is still a fairly recognizable fantasy world with hallmarks like elves, knights and sorcerers, along with, naturally, dungeons and dragons. Even the more exclusive touches however, such as the comically tiny halflings, are still good at eliciting chuckles, while giving casual audiences enough of an entry primer to equally flex what’s unique and special about the Dungeons & Dragons brand.
Surprisingly, one element that Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves actually carries over from the terrible 2000 movie that it’s mercifully rebooting is the fact that its lead protagonists are thieves. This is despite the fact that the more pedantic among Dungeons & Dragons’ fanbase would be inclined to point out the irony that none of the main characters are actually ‘thieves’ in the sense of the franchise lore. Perhaps an intentional joke by Daley and Goldstein? Or, maybe it’s just a strange irony in a franchise where thieves are literally their own character variety, often classified as ‘rogues’.
Instead, main characters, Edgin Darvis, played by Chris Pine, and Holga Kilgore, played by Michelle Rodriguez, are a bard and a barbarian, respectively. They are eventually joined by Justice Smith’s Simon Aumar, a mage, Sophia Lillis’ Doric, a druid, and Rege-Jean Page’s Xenk Yendar, a paladin. In a Dungeons & Dragons game, these characters would form a ‘party’, and work as a team to accomplish a common goal in the game’s storyline, or ‘campaign’. Similarly, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves structures itself as a heist movie, where every character has a different skill, and a different emotional stake in the plot. They’re united however by a common enemy; Forge Fitzwilliam, played by Hugh Grant, one of the primary antagonists, and the only actual thief/rogue in the movie.
The protagonists are all good fun, and they all do a decent job presenting little character arcs that help them slightly mature throughout the course of the storytelling. It’s Grant that manages to be a surprising standout though, despite arguably being the face that you would least expect to see in a Dungeons & Dragons movie, of all things. Grant’s Forge is a fast-talking, comically rude antagonist that feels like he’s ad-libbing most of his lines on the fly, and for all we know, Grant very well could have been! It’s this performance where Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves seems to draw the most strength from the lead actors just playing themselves for the most part.
Again, perhaps this is intentional to some degree. Pine, Rodriguez, Lillis, Smith, Page and Grant all playing to type does sort of echo the feeling of a very expensive, celebrity-sponsored Dungeons & Dragons game come to life. That said however, it also leaves some noteworthy character potential on the table. The protagonists are likable, and they do learn a satisfying little lesson or two on their adventure, but even if they have the necessary wit to be lovable lead heroes, they sometimes lack the depth to truly stand out from the pack. This is despite Rodriguez making a commendable effort to give some deceptive heart to her thuggish brute, and Smith actually managing to avoid being annoying throughout any scene where he’s less than perfectly comfortable.
Sadly, the real antagonist driving Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, Daisy Head’s 300-year-old red wizard, Sofina, makes for a disappointingly bland threat. It’s not really a spoiler to mention that Sofina is the true villain either, because this movie makes it blisteringly obvious that Sofina is the real mastermind behind Forge right from the jump. Head is sinister and enjoyably hammy, and her performance works with what it’s been given, but Sofina’s character is ultimately a plot device; A mere vessel through which the obligatory climactic disaster scenario can be set in motion. It’s actually enough to make me miss Jeremy Irons’ outstandingly cheesy sorcerer baddie from 2000’s previous Dungeons & Dragons movie, because at least Irons played a villain with personality, albeit to the point of wanton scene-chewing. I’d rather have too much of a wicked sorcerer than not enough though, especially when Sofina only exists because Forge can’t hack it as a truly credible threat to the underdog heroes.
Beyond the humour and characters, the over-arching world throughout Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is also a crucial star of proceedings. The main setting should be recognizable to avid Dungeons & Dragons fans as well, with the continent of Faerun playing host to this movie’s adventure. There are changes made to Faerun’s lore, races and locations from the original tabletop game, both to make this movie more accessible, and a little more diverse, but even the mere mention of iconic Dungeons & Dragons locations like Neverwinter, Baldur’s Gate, Waterdeep and the Icewind Dale, among others, is something that should tickle franchise fans.
And yet despite tipping the hat to some familiar locales, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves ultimately feels a bit conservative in terms of developing its world. Perhaps Paramount, Entertainment One and Hasbro intentionally want to avoid over-developing Faerun for want of anticipating sequel movies, spin-off shows and probably some actual tie-ins with the original Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game. Even so, many of the locations throughout Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves feel disappointingly generic by modern fantasy standards, with ultimately just one dungeon left to serve as the backbone of a disappointingly short-lived macguffin hunt.
“And yet despite tipping the hat to some familiar locales, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves ultimately feels a bit conservative in terms of developing its world.”
Again, perhaps this is being done in the name of accessibility for non-fans. Even by the standards of a more light-hearted fantasy movie however, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves quickly feels like a mini-campaign designed by a dungeon master that’s more keen on encouraging character rapport than actually generating imaginative obstacles. There is some familiar franchise magic that manages to translate into the action scenes for the most part, especially when they include some recognizable Dungeons & Dragons monsters like displacer beasts, mimics and gelatinous cubes, all of which are featured within one sequence teased at length in the trailers. Despite that however, Daley and Francis being comedy directors and not action directors is plainly evident, with many of the action scenes in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves lacking the sense of ‘punch’ you would get from your various Middle-earth and Westeros adaptations, or, hell, even those from J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves may be noticeably more lightweight than much of its fantasy-based competition, but that can also be what makes it shine. This is a well-paced, cutely-presented heist adventure that’s sharp with the laughs, and presents just enough colourful imagination to bring you into the fantastical land of Faerun, even if it’s currently a far cry from other highly-developed blockbuster fantasy settings. Needless to say, this long-awaited reboot is also an enormous improvement over 2000’s previous (and disastrous) attempt at a Dungeons & Dragons movie.
If you’re feeling a little burned out on the usual crop of dark, hard R-rated modern fantasy, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is both a strong antidote, and a promising franchise starter. Even if you’re just in the market for a fun and lovable underdog comedy, fantasy elements notwithstanding, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves delivers in spades. It’s not too complex of a blockbuster, but that also makes it accessible, even to viewers that don’t know the first thing about Dungeons & Dragons, while still offering more than enough fun nods and Easter eggs to please longtime Dungeons & Dragons fans.
The continent of Faerun may leave most of its exciting possibilities on the table for now, but Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves nonetheless exceptionally proves that it’s Dungeons & Dragons’ time to shine in the mainstream, if these are the kinds of adaptations we can expect, going forward. Whether a new cinematic adventure is immediately lined up for Edgin, Holga and co., or perhaps an equally worthy spin-off introduces us to a new cast and setting within this same realm, I’m eagerly anticipating what Dungeons & Dragons’ handlers plan to bring to the property’s new live-action arm next.