credit: Paramount Pictures

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (2023) ****

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is a pleasant fantasy action-comedy movie that skims the surface of the genre for cool aesthetics and a satisfying but rote story. Hasbro has a specific vision for the Forgotten Realms that is consistently applied across Dungeons & Dragons-related properties. This is a very successful filmic take on the same material as the game Baldur’s Gate 3, except way less horny. You’re supposed to enjoy watching this one with the kids. BG3 is for playing alone after the kids go to bed, if you know what I mean.

I promise I’m not talking D&D:HAT down for being a checklist of fantasy adventure tropes. The thing about movies that check boxes is that you’ll love it if those are your boxes, you know? There is nothing I love more than seeing funny little dudes chased around by a big kitty with psychic venus fly traps on its back. I have spent my entire life wishing that I was a scary bald witch who can use a disembodied meat fist to arm-wrestle with cute twinks. Holga could crush my head in the crook of her elbow by flexing her bicep. They could have done it with way less wit and warmth and I’d have probably still been seated for it.

Luckily, this is a Good Movie.

A shallow story means that they can access a greater depth of SFF lore than the layman might be familiar with. For instance, tracer beasts–the venus fly trap kitty. Have you ever seen a tracer beast in a blockbuster intended for general audiences? If you have, please let me know; I need to educate myself on that part of film history.

We have plenty of anthros walking around the world, like our long-suffering friend Jarnathan. Talking to the dead is strictly limited to five questions for reasons nobody in the movie knows but you can run around resurrecting the dead to your heart’s content. Justice Smith learns to think with portals. A gelatinous cube is a plot point.

You must accept that the movie is written with the structure of a tabletop campaign of Dungeons & Dragons. This has many perceptible effects on the writing: characters behave along the limited D&D axis of morality, the heroes move through environments that feel a lot like (very nice-looking) maps that are peppered with traps which only make sense as puzzles for players; you can tell when the writing intends for characters to have a good roll or a bad roll. All of this occurs without any meta framing story. This is simply how the universe works, to such a degree that Regé-Jean Page’s flawlessly lawful good behavior reminds me why I never, ever play lawful good.

It’s an extremely structured way to worldbuild. It makes sense in games. Actually, it’s kind of a clever and interesting approach to allowing a tabletop game to model a complex world using simple dice rolls. But it means the movie is less committed to traditional screenwriting than it is to game campaign writing. Lulls are scheduled between quests to a degree that feels unnaturally episodic within the movie.

None of that is really a problem. It’s executed very well. I think it would bother me if I was only a movie fan, and not a fan of the source material; mostly I’m just remarking on how it’s interesting to see the deviation from the traditional screenwriting structure like this, adapted from another format.

D&D:HAT wants you to have fun. Hence it’s not very interested in thinking very hard about what’s going on. This is a really straightforward story with extremely limited room for textual interpretation of themes or whatnot. It does, however, offer ample room for getting creative about Chris Pine and Regé-Jean Page’s characters bumping pretties, if you like writing fanfic.

The dead wife is the only thing that gets a wee bit sad, but she’s such an artificial representation of a fridged wife for a character’s backstory that it’s hard to feel attached. I wasn’t surprised to see a bunch of dude names in the credits for writing and directing, though.

This is one of those movies that I really, really enjoy whenever I watch it, but I kind of forget it exists once I’ve turned away to something else. It’s so well made. I genuinely like it. But it’s not very interesting to me on a narrative level, so it just doesn’t stick to my ribs the way more metaphor- and myth-oriented Tolkienesque fantasy does.

(image credit: Paramount Pictures)

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