The Middling Earth: Dungeons & Dragons (2000)

by George Wood

The fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (DnD) has enjoyed a resurgence in the past few years. Shows like the pop culture behemoth Stranger Things helped boost the game’s profile among wider audiences, and with the game’s emphasis on adventure and social storytelling, new players such as myself found it a much-needed means of escape during the pandemic. A new film adaptation starring Chris Pine, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, is being released in UK cinemas on March 31st, and based on early reviews, looks set to be a hit.

But Honour Among Thieves was not the first attempt at a DnD movie. That… honour goes to Dungeons & Dragons, released by New Line Cinema in December 2000, the same year that the popular 3rd edition of DnD was released, and a year before the studio would change the fantasy film landscape forever with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Directed by Courtney Solomon, Dungeons & Dragons was a critical flop and a box office bomb, grossing a measly $34m worldwide against a $45m budget. Despite its failure, renewed interest in both the game and the fantasy genre in general helped the film spawn two direct-to-video sequels in 2005 and 2012.

A DiCaprio-meme-pointing moment: the only connection between Dungeons and Dragons (2000) and the upcoming Honour Among Thieves (2023).
Image credit: New Line Cinema

Watching it in 2023, Dungeons & Dragons is still a terrible movie. The film immediately assaults the viewer with incredibly shoddy CG establishing shots of a fantasy city, soon followed by an even worse CG dragon that looks like it’s been rendered on a Nintendo 64. Everything looks cheap, from the makeup and costuming to the action scenes and fight choreography, and was shot for cheap in the Czech Republic to cut costs on props and sets. The film is actually the first feature to ever shoot in the Sedlec Ossuary, a Roman Catholic chapel intricately and macabrely decorated with the bones of tens of thousands of human skeletons, but even impressive locations such as these fail to really register on screen.

The story follows two lowly, teenage thieves Ridley and Snails finding themselves caught up in a plot by the evil mage Profion to overthrow the Empress Savina, as both sides vie for control of the Rod of Savrille to gain control of the Red dragons. Along the way the unlikely heroes are joined by good mage Marina, dwarf fighter Elwood and elven ranger Narda, and are chased down by Profion’s chief henchman, Damodar.

Behind every gay person is a gayer, more evil person.
Bruce Payne as Damodar (right) and Jeremy Irons as Mage Profion (left).
Image credit: New Line Cinema

The plot is mostly incoherent gibberish. The script is littered with late 90s anachronisms that make the film sound more Disney Channel than Tolkein; mostly after-school special dialogue but peppered with the occasional sexist joke. Solomon in a contemporary interview notes that they went for up-and-coming actors for the leads to make the characters look like “normal” DnD players (in other words, “we had no budget”). Unfortunately, the young leads played by Justin Whalin, Marlon Wayans, Zoe McLellan deliver performances that are like listening to nails on a chalkboard, not that the writing or direction does them any favours. Wayans is especially underserved, having to play a racist caricature and given an ending that feels incredibly mean-spirited compared to what the other leads work with.

This generic dross would be unwatchable if it wasn’t for a certain camp factor that eeks the movie towards so-bad-it’s-good territory. Jeremy Irons may have done this film to pay for a castle that he had just bought, but he can’t be accused of sleeping at the wheel here, imbuing the role of the film’s big bad, Profion, with Shakespearean theatricality. Imagine his performance as Scar from The Lion King (1994) but hammed up to an 11. It’s not necessarily good, but it sure isn’t boring! Sadly his scenes are relatively sparse in the film (again, read: “we had no budget”), so for most of the runtime, villain duties are handed to a more stoic but equally gay-coded Bruce Payne as Damodar.

Tom Baker’s one-scene appearance as Halvarth the Elf.
A very poignant moment hampered slightly by the camera’s brazen focus on Narda’s highly impractical breastplate.
Image credit: New Line Cinema

Then there’s Richard O’Brien of Rocky Horror Show fame, flamboyant and malevolent as the thieves guild leader, Xilus, riffing off his past role as host of The Crystal Maze in a very Crystal Maze-y sequence. And finally the Fourth Doctor himself, Tom Baker, pops up in a very touching, one-scene performance that is completely unearned and subsequently forgotten about.

Ultimately, the idea of a DnD film has always been a bit strange to me, given that the main draw of the game is about creating your own stories rather than passively watching someone else’s. But from early impressions, this year’s Honour Among Thieves is a solid film, drawing on lore familiar to DnD players while delivering big-budget spectacle with memorable characters. 2000’s Dungeon & Dragons is pretty much the opposite of that.

If you just wanted to watch the campiest scenes, you can probably find a compilation on YouTube (in fact, you can watch the entirety of the Dungeons & Dragons on YouTube given how little New Line Cinema seemingly cares about the film’s copyright). I can’t in good faith recommend watching Dungeons & Dragons, but if you’re in the mood for a shoddy fantasy film made with a degree of sincerity, then this is at least less than two hours.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves is out in cinemas now!

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