I’ve never been one for tabletop role-playing games. Tried a few times, didn’t stick. I got plenty of invites when Dungeons & Dragons had a mainstream resurgence about five years ago, and it never seemed compelling. Even before I had kids, I felt like I never had the time for them — or the attention span.
These days I’m similarly impatient with the fantasy genre in general. Stuff like The Witcher or The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power or whatever feels like a lot of gobbledygook lore, hard to necessarily latch onto because it’s both overly familiar and too esoteric. Sometimes I wonder, deep down, whether I spent all my remaining energy for this sort of thing when I loved Duncan Jones’ 2016 Warcraft movie. I recently discovered I own not one, but two 4K Blu-rays of that one. One was definitely a gift from my colleague Nick Rogers, but the other probably just appeared in my collection, summoned by the remaining magic of my youthful interest in all these elves, dwarfs, oaks and other staples of a genre I now just find impenetrable.
The only reason I went to see Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (henceforth D&D) — the newest big-screen adaptation of the classic game — is because Aly, my spouse and colleague, wanted to see it, and our movie time together is limited these days. We were almost late to the screening, and I held back even longer to get myself a free popcorn. I just didn’t really care if I missed a bit of it.
Turns out I was wrong. D&D is a surprisingly delightful old-school adventure that cares less about lore and fidelity to intellectual property (despite plenty of clear references) and more about creating a cast of lovable characters from a troupe of actors who usually don’t get to shine in films like this. Co-directors and co-writers John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein — who made the popular Game Night and the less-than-popular remake of Vacation — bring their comedic sensibilities and clarity of character to a story with lots of familiar tropes and manage to make it all feel fresh, funny and fast-paced. (The film opens with early screenings this week before wide release on Friday.)
Chris Pine leads as Edgin, a bard-turned-thief with a tragic past who just wants to reunite with his daughter, Kira (Chloe Coleman) after a lengthy stint in prison. His best friend, a warrior named Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), has been at his side for years, and the two once led a merry band of criminals who stole from those who didn’t deserve it. On their quest to redeem themselves to Kira, they bring together a band of travelers, including a wizard named Simon (Justice Smith) and a changeling named Doric (Sophia Lillis), to plunge dungeons and ultimately defeat an ancient evil, personified by Red Wizard Sofina (Daisy Head).
Along the way, they meet colorful fellow travelers like Xenk (a scene-stealing, exquisitely handsome Regé-Jean Page) and con artist Forge (Hugh Grant). Again, this is a cast of characters who haven’t really had their shot at this kind of big action blockbuster, and everyone seems to be engaged with the material in precisely the right way. There’s zero cynicism about the source material, only an earnest and engaged tone that balances humor and heart in a very effective way.
I guess it speaks to cultural assumptions that the critical narrative forming around D&D is that it’s “not as bad as you’d think”; perhaps that’s fueled by a previous misbegotten attempt at a big-screen story in 2000. But it’s true and, in fact, it’s really good on its own terms. Even the action and stunts are well-shot and clearly choreographed, a step up from many more expensive, higher-profile genre films these days. Perhaps most importantly of all, D&D feels like a genuinely family-friendly blockbuster — a market this year’s superhero films haven’t seemed to corner as in days of old.