This initial spoiler-free take on Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves comes from the movie’s debut at the 2023 SXSW Conference. We’ll have more in-depth coverage as the movie’s release date approaches.
We’re living in a new golden age for fantasy movies and shows. Gone is the time when epic fantasy adventures were given low budgets that crippled production, or scripts that showed open disdain for the genre. Now, elves, dragons, and magic are as big a part of the pop culture zeitgeist as sitcoms were in the ’90s. And yet, thanks to the huge success of Game of Thrones, fantasy shows and movies are usually dark and bleak, both in tone and in visuals. That’s just one of many reasons why the movie Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is such a shock to the system: It’s an attempt to prove that we’re finally ready to embrace the fun, chaos, and full-on weirdness of the fantasy genre.
What makes Dungeons & Dragons unique as a game is the way the system works as a huge sandbox. No two games are the same, even though players are using so many of the same tools. The new movie, from John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, based on a script written by Daley, Goldstein, and Michael Gilio, feels like an invitation to sit on the latest session in a campaign they’ve been running for years.
It’s like watching an episode of Critical Role and realizing the group hasn’t just crafted a good story out of the blue, they were playing together for a long time even before the cameras rolled. Even before Honor Among Thieves’ bard Edgin (Chris Pine) tells a story about his background so the audience can understand his motivation (his actual words), and we see his past adventures with most of the other characters, the movie feels like the latest chapter in a very long and intricate story.
This is what the best stories do: They invite you into an expansive, intricate world that feels like it existed long before these characters entered the story, and far beyond this particular adventure. Honor Among Thieves aces that world-building. It name-drops several key D&D locations, like Baldur’s Gate and Waterdeep. But the real sense of connection for fans of the game comes in the way the film uses real sets and locations to convey the grandeur and size of the world, and populates them with a ton of characters and background sights, from ruins to ancient monuments. In a way, the approach feels similar to James Cameron’s original Avatar, which tells a fairly simple, uncomplicated, often predictable story, so Cameron can focus on building a massive world without overwhelming the audience.
In Honor Among Thieves, that approach pays off. The story of a group of misfits going on a quest to find a magical artifact in order to pull off a heist isn’t very complex, and it’s often predictable. But it’s effective and to the point, designed to let the characters and the world speak for themselves.
For viewers who’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons, the movie’s world won’t be harder to wrap your head around than Westeros or Middle-earth, apart from all the creatures and cultures, from dragon people to lizard people to cat people. (The Tabaxi in this film rule.) There’s a similarly large variety of creatures, like owlbears and mimics. The film employs plenty of practical creature effects that look incredible, though at times, the CGI touch-ups don’t blend as well as they could. It’s a testament to the writers’ trust in the audience that they don’t overexplain how things work in this world, whether it’s the magic, the characters’ abilities, factions like the Harpers or the Emerald Enclave, or the anachronistic technology that puts this movie closer to Willow or The Princess Bride than Lord of the Rings.
But the differences between Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy franchises is the sweet spot where Honor Among Thieves really shines. That starts with the film’s portrayal of magic, which is unlike anything else on TV or film. There are no wizards waving their wands, shooting CGI rays of light around. Instead, they need physical ingredients, gestures, words, and even concentration to cast all kinds of spells, simple and complex. The movie makes it very clear that there are limitations to magic — just covering a sorcerer’s mouth stops them from casting spells, for instance.
As cool as the magic is, however, Daley and Goldstein make sure every member of the main party gets a moment to show off their class skills, from the barbarian Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) raging and kicking everyone’s ass in stunningly choreographed action sequences to Pine’s bard motivating his teammates to accomplish their goals. The standout, however, is Sophia Lillis’ tiefling druid Doric, who steals the stage with her use of Wild Shape in the movie’s best sequence, a single-shot escape through a castle that showcases different creatures and proves that druids are the best class. (Fight me.)
Arguably no character feels like they come straight from a gaming session as much as the paladin Xenk (Regé-Jean Page). He is this movie’s take on Jesse Plemons’ character from Game Night, an incredibly serious character surrounded by silly doofuses. He also feels like that one older player who joins a table of newbies with an OP character they’ve been playing for years and who takes the game super-seriously, refusing to break character and constantly reminding you they “do not tolerate colloquialisms.”
For fans of the game, or any of its hundreds of derivative products, it’s a genuine joy to see these dynamics play out recognizably on the screen without shame, to see known locations realized in such lavish detail, and to see this world populated by the creatures that make D&D such a unique franchise. (The intellect devourer is a scene-stealer.) The movie also does a great job of capturing the different tones players might experience in their own campaigns, from horror to campy fun, and from epic high fantasy to a thrilling heist.
That last point is crucial to the success of the movie, which juggles several tones and genres while always remaining playfully earnest. The characters are constantly failing in fights and puzzles. It’s a hoot and a riot to see them be total goofs, but also a triumph when they finally succeed. There’s no embarrassment about the fantasy elements or their origins here, and no attempt to hide or undercut the nerd stuff with sarcastic, dismissive comments. No one mocks each other’s names or skills. The appearance of a displacer beast or a gelatinous cube doesn’t elicit quips about them being ridiculous creatures: They’re just treated as dangerous.
The film is playful and earnest throughout, focusing on the fact that for the characters, these are serious situations. Rodriguez’s barbarian is still reeling from a broken relationship, and when her storyline pays off, it’s hilarious — but the audience is still invited to feel and empathize with her pain. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves doesn’t re-create game mechanics or a sense of improvisation as well as, say, The Legend of Vox Machina, but it is the best Dungeons & Dragons movie we could have hoped for. Not only is it a fun fantasy movie, it’s a great adaptation of a gaming session. And it’s an invitation into a new and more visual version of a world dedicated players already love — and that the filmmakers seem to love, too.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves will premiere in theaters on March 31.
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