The Dungeons & Dragons franchise, which encompasses both paper-and-pencil and computer-based adventure gaming, was born almost three decades ago, the brainchild of tabletop wargamers E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Fans of recreating historical battles from the medieval period, they published a book of rules, called "Chainmail", for managing the combat of miniature figurine armies. But as time progressed, "Chainmail" evolved towards focusing more on the exploits of individual characters instead of entire armies. In addition, influenced by the writings of fantasy authors such as Jack Vance and Michael Moorcock, Gygax and Arneson introduced the use of magic into the game. Eventually, Gygax and Arneson found that controlling single characters who could grow in skill (via 'experience points') was much more fun, and Dungeons & Dragons was born.
Unfortunately, board game manufacturers saw no future in the paper-and-pencil adventure game and so the two gamers formed their own company, Tactical Studies Rules (or TSR for short), to market the game. Dungeons & Dragons made its public debut at the 1973 Eastercon, and it was officially released to the mass market at the beginning of the following year. Though Dungeons & Dragons attracted a loyal following, its popularity really took off in 1977 with the release of the game's second edition, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. By the end of the Eighties, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons had become part of the cultural lexicon, forever associated with oddly-shaped dice, socially-challenged teenagers sitting around tables in darkened rooms, and the occasional anecdotal report of the game cultivating satanism or triggering killing sprees.
Over the years, Dungeons & Dragons captured the imaginations of many young men (and the occasional woman), and one such devoted follower was Courtney Solomon, a kid from Toronto, Canada. Without any feature film experience, money, or big names backing him up, Solomon somehow convinced TSR that he was the only director who could bring the gaming franchise to the silver screen, while still remaining faithful to the game's long and distinguished history. "Dungeons & Dragons" is the fruit of his labor, a $36 million film that aims to bring the magic and mystery of the game to a wider audience. Unfortunately, it looks like Solomon lied, since the finished product is far too feeble-minded, lacking in both wisdom and intelligence, to be taken seriously by anyone, let alone Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts.
The story takes place in the Kingdom of Izmer, where magic users (mages) form the ruling class and the non-magic using 'commoners' are second-class citizens. The young and idealistic Empress Savina (Thora Birch of "American Beauty") wishes to level the playing field by giving the common man a voice in political affairs. However, her efforts are thwarted by the powerful Profion (Jeremy Irons of "The Man in the Iron Mask"), who not only wields considerable influence amongst the ruling council, but also wishes to seize the throne for himself. The key to his victory is possession of a magical scepter that will give him the power to control the ultra-powerful red dragons, which can help him overthrow the Empress.
However, Profion's dastardly scheme runs into some difficulty when it is stumbled upon by two lowly thieves, Ridley (Justin Whalin, who played Jimmy Olsen on "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman") and Snails (Marlon Wayans of "Scary Movie"), and a junior mage named Marina (Zoe McLellan of "Inventing the Abbotts"). Pretty soon, they're in a race against Profion's chief henchman, Damodar (Bruce Payne of "Highlander: Endgame"), to retrieve the scepter. Thankfully, the party of adventurers is bolstered by the presence of tough-as-nails dwarf fighter Elwood (Lee Arenberg of "Warriors of Virtue") and silent-but-deadly elven ranger Norda (Kristen Wilson of "Get on the Bus"). Unfortunately, as they inch closer and closer to completing their quest, the Kingdom of Izmer moves closer and closer to civil war.
Having seen this film the day after checking out Ang Lee's martial arts epic "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", it was quite evident why "Dungeons & Dragons" was such a disappointment. While both films rely on stock characters and a somewhat generic plot that revolves around some sort of a 'quest', "Dungeons & Dragons" fails because the script doesn't bother with trying to rise above the trappings of the genre. Instead of having fully fleshed characters with clear and credible motivations, "Dungeons & Dragons" is populated by a bunch of meddling kids without an ounce of personality-- they are only present to provide warm bodies for the mechanics of the hackneyed plot, and nothing else. Even the 'adult' roles, such as Profion and Damodar, end up being generic bad guys spend all their time cracking sinister smiles as they think about how evil they are. As such, everything that the characters do or what happens to them seems arbitrary-- a couple of characters fall in love, one is the 'chosen one', another one dies, all of which happens without any sort of narrative or emotional basis.
The script also takes the "Hercules" or "Xena" approach by mixing up the sort of dialogue you would expect in such a film with some contemporary sensibility-- unfortunately, very little uttered by the characters is actually humorous or smart. And while on the topic of "Hercules" and "Xena", it seems that Solomon tries to inject the same type of acrobatic action into his movie, only to end up with several generic fight sequences with the occasional special-effects-enhanced magic spell to break the monotony.
The other missing ingredient is acting. The five main characters and the actors that play them are so undifferentiated that at several times throughout the film, at least four of them seem to be competing for the role of comic relief (not that they have anything funny to say). Justin Whalin goes through almost the entire film with the same smart-alecky disposition, while Wayans jive-talking-whiney-bumbling-sidekick shtick gets old really quickly. Even the most talented actors of the cast end up being wasted, as they seem to suffer from the same affliction of overacting infecting the rest of the cast. Thora Birch, who was masterful as Kevin Spacey's troubled daughter in "American Beauty", is absolutely unwatchable with her dull and amateurish performance as the young Empress (she makes Natalie Portman's portaryal of Queen Amidala look almost Shakespearean). On the other end of the spectrum is Jeremy Irons, whose over-the-top portrayal of the story's villain is downright embarrassing.
About the only positive aspect of the entire film would have to be the special effects, which do a decent job of bringing the world of Dungeons & Dragons to life. From the physical manifestation of spells to the otherworldly backdrops for the action, it's obvious where the majority of the $36 million was spent (as opposed to a decent script and good acting). The film's showcase moment comes near the end, when the dragon armies of Savina and Profion wage an aerial battle high above the kingdom, swooping and hurling balls of fire at one another. Until Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy hits the theaters next year, this will have to do.
For all you D&D fanatics who spent a good part of the Eighties slaying mythical monsters and exploring perilous mazes, don't hold your breath. You're probably better off getting a few friends together, cracking open a case of beer, dusting off your AD&D sourcebooks, and creating your own campaign... because it will probably be a lot more fun and original than what "Dungeons & Dragons" the uninspired mess of a movie has to offer.