A ragtag group of bandits embarks on a connect-the-dots adventure in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, a lightweight but largely fun adaptation of the enduring popular tabletop role-playing game. This new feature opened the 2023 South by Southwest film fest this past weekend and will debut in Prague cinemas from March 31.
Credited as the father of all modern RPGs, the world of Dungeons & Dragons is largely left to its players’ imaginations. That’s a strength and a weakness when it comes to creating a big-screen adaptation, giving filmmakers a great deal of freedom but not much direction in terms of pre-existing characters, storylines, or locations to build upon. A 2000 version, which was filmed in Prague and other locations in the Czech Republic, is widely regarded as one of the worst major films of the past few decades.
For Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, who previously collaborated on the fun Game Night and poorly-received Vacation, have the difficult task of molding oceans of material from the game into something that can be appreciated by both fans and newcomers.
The result, perhaps surprisingly, is a rousing success: Honor Among Thieves is a breathless adventure packed with likable characters, some terrific practical visual effects, and a heavy dose of humor. Compared to self-serious franchises like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, this D&D might as well be a live-action Shrek.
Chris Pine holds the whole thing together as Edgin, member of the do-good Harpers who abandons his calling to become a bandit following the death of his wife. Pine, whose sarcastic banter here is part Jason Bateman and part Ryan Reynolds, is the most engaging he’s ever been and a perfect match for the material.
Teamed with warrior Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), young wizard Simon (Justice Smith), and shapeshifter Doric (Sophia Lillis), with an assist from the mystical Xenk (Regé-Jean Page), Edgin embarks on an quest to save his daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) from the clutches of thief and usurper Forge (Hugh Grant), who has taken control of the kingdom of Neverwinter with the help of evil sorceress Sofina (Daisy Head).
These characters are all members of specific Dungeons & Dragons classes, who have unique abilities and items and storylines of purported importance. But while Honor Among Thieves namedrops all the appropriate detail for fans, it never gets bogged down in specifics save for an extended backstory involving the Sofina and Xenk characters.
Instead, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is a refreshingly streamlined adventure that follows an easy-to-follow formula: in order to achieve their goal, our heroes must obtain a specific item, which will allow them to perform a certain task, and so on.
And along their adventure, our heroes repeatedly find themselves in situations they need to work themselves out of using their unique items and abilities. With no skills of his own beyond playing the lute, Edgin is the default leader and “planner” who stands in for the audience: he knows what his team is working with, and how to put their forces together to solve their current conundrum.
It’s refreshing that Dungeons and Dragons repeatedly relies on this kind of creative problem-solving, emulating the original game, to confront its challenges. There are no scenes of characters “magicking” their way out of problems, or throwing spells at each other a la Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, where the audience has no understanding of what they’re seeing beyond the alleged strength of the magician.
It’s also impressive how the filmmakers are able to coherently introduce all the necessary elements within the context of its action scenes. A climactic battle involves some gelatinous cubes, an element for the game, and how they work and how the heroes might utilize them to their benefit is all expressed within seconds during the midst of nonstop action.
Despite a longish running time and simplistic narrative, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is a rousingly entertaining adventure that might even move a little too fast, and attempt to stuff too much into its story. More time with some of the fantasy characters, lovingly created with practical effects, would have been welcome.
While it remains to be seen if the world of Honor Among Thieves is strong enough to launch a cinematic Dungeons & Dragons universe, as a standalone film this one is destined to please almost all audiences, and rights some previous wrongs for the franchise.