There’s a low bar for big budget fantasy at the moment. Franchises such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Fantastic Beasts films have become increasingly turgid, serving bloated stories and washed-out, visually uninspiring spectacle. Last year’s Three Thousand Years of Longing from Mad Max director George Miller was a rare exception, but was also one of the biggest box office bombs of 2022.
It’s a great relief then that Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, from directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, hits every note it needs to for an original blockbuster of this ilk to succeed (“original” if you ignore the ill-fated first attempt at a DnD movie).
I’m somewhat a DnD player myself – play the game regularly but know nothing of the wider lore beyond the campaign I’m currently involved in. I don’t really care for “references” that IP-driven movies seem to be obsessed with, and while I’m sure there are lots of Easter eggs in this film for DnD veterans, what it gets right most of all is the feel of playing DnD. The film pokes fun at the DnD experience (“Why can’t I use magic for everything?”, “How can we get across this booby-trapped bridge?”), but never feels smugly referential. Characters make a lot of wisecracks, but they are actual jokes in tone with the story, rather than empty Whedonisms thrown in to fill the air. Again, low bar, but it’s so refreshing to have a modern fantasy successful balance earnestness with light-hearted humour.
The story sticks with a tried-and-tested heist formula, building a team of colourful characters with no weak link in the cast. I love Hugh Grant’s conman villain, even if his performance is straight from Paddington 2, and Justice Smith as the perpetually frustrated sorcerer, Simon. Sophia Lillis as the tiefling druid, Doric, is great in a mostly straight-laced role, while her shape-shifting character gets an incredible, one-shot chase sequence that plays beautifully on the big screen (even if – sorry to be that guy – it technically violates DnD rules of how many times a druid can use Wild Shape in one day).
Chris Pine as the bard, Edgin, and Michelle Rodriguez as the barbarian, Holga, have wonderful platonic chemistry whenever they’re on screen together, which is thankfully most of the film. My favourite performance comes from Regé-Jean Page, who plays his Lawful Good paladin Xenk Yendar with perfect righteousness. I finally get what everyone who’s ever seen Bridgerton has been saying about him.
Everything’s so wonderfully charming, from the performances to the creative set pieces, that it’s made realise why I haven’t enjoyed anything from the MCU in quite a while. There’s only one moment in the cold open that should have been left on the cutting room floor (an implied threat of sexual violence completely out of tone with the rest of the film), otherwise, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves might be the biggest pleasant surprise of 2023 so far.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves is out in cinemas now