"Someday, I want to SEE dragons flying through the sky, attacking a city, breathing flame… it'll be amazing!" -Me, age 11.
"Today, I went to SEE dragons flying through the sky, attacking a city, breathing flame… it was amazing!" -Me, Today.
With production hardships, a rather small budget for a major production and all the other rigors of producing a film in this day and age, Dungeons & Dragons fulfilled one childhood fantasy of mine that I have had for over 20 years and provided the adult me with an entertaining that left only a slightly questionable taste in my cinematic mouth. Allow me to elucidate.
The film sports a cast that is a combination of television semi-stars, high-powered theatrical newcomers, talented unknowns and cameos that will delight just about every D&D fan the world wide. At the forefront of the cast, the nominal hero (in an ensemble picture like this, everyone has their fair share of the credit) is Justin Whalin (Ridley), better known as Jimmy Olsen from the 2nd season on of Lois & Clark: The Adventures of Superman. His youthful appearance and exuberance are a perfect fit for the swashbuckling thief role, and both his acting skills and his physical abilities in the part are well done. His partner is Marlon Wayans (Snails), best known from the Wayans Brothers TV show and from one very bad awards show (I forget which, probably on purpose). Considering how low my expectations were of any performance from one of the two un-funny Wayans brothers (the funny ones being Keenan and Damon), I was pleasantly surprised. Wayans plays the comic part well, proving that he can act, it's just best if someone else writes the jokes for him.
The daring duo, upon witnessing a "magic experiment gone horribly awry", decide to rob the Mages School. During their attempt, they meet up with Zoe McLellan (Marina), a novice mageling, who becomes their accidental travelling companion. What acting her role calls for is well done, but she is not a major player in most of the events of the film, as they mainly center around Ridley and her character is not very dynamic. Fleeing pursuit, they run into (literally) Lee Arenberg (Elwood), a dwarven fighter who fully convinced me he was a dwarf, no small task for a D&D devote' like myself. While also not having a large part, his physical appearance, stance, facial expressions and general attitude were so incredibly like the dwarves I've read about since finding The Hobbit at age 11 that I had no trouble suspending disbelief on his behalf. The last member of their unlikely band is Kristen Wilson (Norda), an elven tracker. Again, while it would have been nice to see more of her, what I did see also struck me as the epitome of what an elf should be. Her movements, appearance, and voice were all what my mind looked upon as "appropriate".
The 'sponsor' of Norda and ultimately of the rest of the band is Thora Birch (Empress Sevina), a soft-spoken young woman who is in 'power' over the land in which the film takes place. Birch seems stilted and over-rehearsed in the performance of her assigned role. While regal and authoritative, the audience is only convinced of her motives by the speeches of Marina and Norda, not by any particularly notable acting by Birch. She is adequate in her role, but only barely so. One wonders if it is the fault of Birch or the writers that her character was so… bland.
Ahhh… but then we come to the villains. The main villain is played by Jeremy Irons (Profion). For those, like myself, who have enjoyed Irons' many performances over the years, this was truly a treat. Never before has he been asked to play so far over-the-top in a character. Never before have we seen such fire and passion and maniacal powermongering! It was truly enjoyable to watch him in a role that he appeared to be having so much fun in. He was so beyond reason, so undeniably evil that, were it any other actor but Irons, it would have been so campy as to have ruined the film. But because it is Irons, it merely comes across as the ultimate fantasy villain role gone horribly right.
But ultimately, I have to agree with another reviewer whose words I read before going to see this film… Bruce Payne (Damodar) as Profion's nefarious assistant in his power hungry schemes was the stand-out performance of all the actors in the film. Payne has a true lock on how to play a character that is menacing even without any show of power. His portrayal of Damodar calls to mind Doug Bradley's portrayal of Pinhead in the Hellraiser films, so coldly, coolly arrogant and confident is his character. Above and beyond the grade I give to this film, Payne has earned himself an A+ in my gradebook.
And what would a film be without cameos that would stir a D&D fan's heart. There are some things that just go together, it seems, with fans of the genre, and the most memorable actors from two of them appear in cameos in this film. First is Richard O'Brien's fabulously slippery portrayal of Nilus, the head of the largest Thieves Guild in the realms, and keeper of the artifact the heroes need to continue on their quest. He is disingenuous, condescending, sneaky, dishonorable… everything a master thief should be. The other cameo caused my wife and I to openly gape when that signature smile penetrated the veil of the make-up and revealed that it was indeed Tom Baker, of massive Dr. Who fame, hiding under the hair and costume of the King of the Elves, whom Norda takes the band to visit for healing and introspection. If I had closed my eyes, I'm sure I would have recognized him immediately, but it was his smile that ultimately cemented my suspicions, and his role was well-cast. The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Dr. Who are cult favorites from the past that practically all gamers know, and many love and revere.
Finally, there comes the story and special effects. Being a long-time fan and player of the D&D game, the storyline of the film was exactly how many a game I have been a part of has run. However, as a stand-alone story, it was somewhat lacking if you didn't have the feel of the role-playing game to guide you through the weak points. The special effects, however, more than made up for it. Station X Studios, the special effects firm, made something wonderful. What I saw on that screen was nothing short of amazing: The beholders, the dragons, the spells, the fabulous cityscapes and swooping shots up the sides of Profion's stronghold which all left me literally breathless. If nothing else, this film is worth seeing in the theatre just so the effects can be seen on the big screen.
Overall, I give this film a B+. The character development was weak in the supporting cast, and the story was fairly shallow, but as a complete package it was well worth the money I paid to see it. I fully intend to own this film when it is released on DVD, and I have sincere hopes that it does well enough to engender a sequel, or two, or three… Go see it, if for no other reason than to see flights of dragons in aerial combat. It's what I always dreamed of.