Between The Last of Us, a Tetris movie on Apple TV+ and the upcoming Super Mario Bros movie, game adaptations and origin stories are having a moment. But what does it mean to transform an artform that thrives on the element of choice into a set, pre-determined narrative, turning active participants into passive viewers? With Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (of the delightful Game Night) attempt an answer. In channeling the popular fantasy role-playing game into a streamlined narrative, they draw on its boundless potential to construct an ‘anything-goes’ caper. What a shame then, that its film feels singularly devoid of imagination, hobbled by the very thing that should enable it to soar. There’s plenty of choice, but rarely any consequence.
Dungeons and Dragons opens with incarcerated thieves Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine) and Holga Killgore (Michelle Rodriguez) plotting a prison break so they can reunite with former partner Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant), to whom Edgin has entrusted custody of his young daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman). Some double-crossing and deception later, Edgin and Holga realise they must team up with inept sorcerer Simon Aumar (Justice Smith) and shapeshifting druid Doric (Sophia Lillis) instead if they are to have any chance of seeing Kira again.
As the film progresses, every set-up is apparent from a mile off, every joke is the most obvious choice. Even in confessional mode, nothing the characters say feels revelatory, just rote. At several points, group members announce that they’re running out of time, a statement that does little to counter the narrative lethargy. Dungeons and Dragons is a strictly PG-13 film, with bland, bloodless brawls and little risk to life or limb. The landscapes are stunning, at least for the fraction of a minute it takes the group to wander through them on their way to the next CGI interior. Their journey lacks the epic sweep and scale of a Lord of the Rings adventure, or even the deep-rooted bonds between the characters that girded that franchise. There’s no real sense of warmth or camaraderie between these people, or even what tied former allies together in the first place. Only a single tender flashback between Edgin and his late wife infuses the film with earnest emotion not dulled by derivative humour.
The danger with wearing your failure lightly so as not to let on how greatly it troubles you, however, is that your armour runs the risk of becoming a permanent fixture, threatening to eclipse every significant internal shift you might have. And so when the characters in Dungeons and Dragons talk, snark slips into sincerity and back again, all in the same intonation. There’s no narrative crescendo to any of the events, no ebb and flow of sentiment. Instead, the film adopts a casualness which with it infects every other major emotion — betrayal, loss, friendship, the realisation of the enormity of your responsibilities as a parent. Even the film’s big reunion, staged early on, is devoid of any feeling but awkwardness. Prepare for smug platitudes — “You’re at your strongest when you think you’re at your weakest.” — and characters who either deliver insight into their motivation through exposition dumps, or remain frustratingly opaque so as to set up twists.
Some actors are more suited to the inherent silliness of this setup than others. Smith plays a variation of the bumbling fool type with a guileless charm while Grant is once again superb as the deliriously campy villain after his turn in Paddington 2 (2017). Regé‑Jean Page as the knight Xenk Yendar, on the other hand, delivers each line with a self-conscious gravitas that verges on parody.
For all its chaotic energy, Dungeons and Dragons is fairly predictable. And for all its orchestrated chaos, in which the failure of a Plan A might give way to plan B, which will then crash and burn leading to Plan C and then D, the film itself ends up exactly where you’d expect.