The impulse as you sit through Dungeons & Dragons is to close your eyes, thereby shielding yourself from those atrocious computer-generated zooming up and down gaudily-colored castles and cloud-capped palaces. Unfortunately, the sound design is so brutal with those sharp rings as swords clash, glitter dust swirls, and magic spells go WHOOSH that sleep is not a viable option.
Consider just this small aspect of the film: Why is it that the main characters are dressed like Tolkien's rangers but sound like The Real World, some gaudy hybrid of Conan the Barbarian and Star Wars: Episode I?
Indeed, it's nearly impossible to look at the young Empress Savina (Thora Birch, American Beauty) without thinking about Natalie Portman's headdress. Say what you will about the George Lucas film, Portman did manage to appear regal. Birch, on the other hand, comes off as a bubble-headed Valley Girl whose glib talk of equality for everyone would fit comfortably on the stage of a high school beauty contest.
In our opening tracking shot across the sea, while dragons fly underfoot, we hear a ponderous voice-over throwing out strange names and places. We haven't been introduced to anyone yet, and I defy the viewer to make sense of it. What we do get is this: The Mages are attempting to overthrow the Empire of Izmer, while the commoners struggle for equal rights. Profion (former Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons) seeks the scepter to control the power of the Golden Dragons, but we also learn of an equally powerful rod which unites the Red Dragons. Are you with me so far? There's a quiz afterwards.
It's around this time that we meet the two young thieves, Ridley (Justin Whalin) and his silly black sidekick, Step 'n' Fetchit (Marlon Wayans, Requiem for a Dream). Actually, the Wayans character is called Snails, who will sacrifice anything, even his life if need be, to save Massah. Spike Lee would have a field day with Wayans' bug-eyed performance. Of course, Wayans is bringing it on himself -- he's clearly set up as the white man's burden and is handled as such. His final scene nails the coffin shut on my case.
Ridley and Snails sneak into the inner sanctum of a wizard who has some sort of secret scroll (another prop) that the bad guys are after. As the good guys set off on their adventure, they team up with a young magician (Zoe McLellan) who never actually uses her magic -- she's too busy waiting for the boys to rescue her. Since Jeremy Irons only wants to pick up his paycheck for this film, he sends the sinister Damodar (Bruce Payne) in hot pursuit.
Together, the thieves, the young magician, and a few other trusty sidekicks run through a series of hoops, with the crazy kids wandering through forests and towns, thieves' mazes, and enemy castles. To keep things entertaining, they never let up on their sarcastic repartee, slapping each other high-fives. Meanwhile, Snails ponders the immortal question, "Massah, why do you always get to save the girl while I go after the dwarf?" Riddle me that, Batman!
The sorry excuse for a plot builds up to an elaborate, if incomprehensible, dragon war. Buildings are smashed, swords are drawn, and the sky runs red with blood (actually, computer generated clouds that might have been swell in Tomb Raider but won't be fooling anyone here). Jeremy Irons gets to stand at the top of a tower cackling, contorting his face, and, ultimately, destroying his career with such aplomb that I wonder when he'll work in this town again.
Is there anything good which can be said about Dungeons & Dragons? Fans of the role-playing game will be distressed as they see their beloved world contorted into a travesty. Those who loved the Saturday morning cartoon will wonder why the filmmakers didn't simply use that cute, kid-friendly story as source material.
Everyone else out there is on their own. Just pretend this review is a large iron gate where, written large, are the words Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.
Postscript: There is one good thing I can say about the film, which perhaps will be of little interest to anyone who never saw the wonderful British sci-fi show, Doctor Who. My boyhood hero, Tom Baker, who played the good doctor throughout the '70s, makes a cameo appearance in D&D as the Lord of the Elves. It made me feel good to know that he is still getting work.
If you want to see even more of Baker, check out the DVD, which features a ton of equally cheesy deleted scenes -- albeit scenes that actually explain some of the plot points that are sheer mystery otherwise. Also included: two commentary tracks by lisping Dungeonmaster Solomon, Dave Arneson (D&D co-creator), and Whalin; and two documentaries, one a typical making-of bit, the other a not-horrible look at the history of role playing games (though mostly, of course, it's still a shill for the D&D movie). As a DVD-ROM you can even print out an actual roleplaying version of the movie you just watched, so you and your friends can relive the horror a second time.
Flee the dragons!
Run time: 107 mins
In Theaters: Friday 8th December 2000
Box Office USA: $14.8M
Box Office Worldwide: $15.2M
Distributed by: New Line Cinema
Production compaines: Silver Pictures, Sweetpea Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 1 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 10%
Fresh: 9 Rotten: 82
IMDB: 3.6 / 10
Director: Courtney Solomon
Starring: Justin Whalin as Ridley Freeborn, Jeremy Irons as Profion, Thora Birch as Empress Savina, Bruce Payne as Damodar, Zoe McLellan as Marina Pretensa, Marlon Wayans as Snails, Robert Miano as Azmath, Tomas Havrlik as Mage, Edward Jewesbury as Vildan Vildir, Lee Arenberg as Elwood Gutworthy, Kristen Wilson as Norda, Martin Astles as Orc #1, Matthew O'Toole as Orcs, David O'Kelly as Three Eyes, Richard O'Brien as Xilus