Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, the new film, is the sort of aimless, generally good-natured fantasy-comedy that used to appear regularly, flop dramatically, and then live a long and happy life as a VHS tape worn to cellophane by replayings at slumber parties—a renaissance festival of slumming movie stars (Hugh Grant), Americans doing British accents (Justice Smith), and cameos fine-tuned to make parents go “Hey, it’s that guy!” (That guy is, among others, Bradley Cooper.) Think The Princess Bride or Labyrinth or The NeverEnding Story. The plot, down to the joke that pays off as a post-credits gag, is eminently predictable, but there’s also less celebrity mugging than in, say, Stardust, the only entry I can remember in this once-reliable genre in the past two decades, give or take, and as an adaptation of the source material, I think it’s probably not too grand to say that it works perfectly.
Directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, of the well-liked ensemble comedy Game Night, hurdle over the (admittedly not very high) bar set for contemporary action-comedy blockbuster filmmaking by Marvel Studios. Often, the actors appear to be on the same set with one another. Some of the monsters seem to be puppets, in addition to the expected CGI nonsense. Many of the jokes are genuinely funny, and several of the characters have consistent traits that grow or diminish as the film progresses. Sometimes the jokes are even about those character traits. The leads, Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez, seem to enjoy looking ridiculous, and they are good at it. There is an evil wizard (played terrifyingly by Daisy Head) who is planning an unpleasant act of mayhem, and the film’s denouement hinges not on whether or not she manages to kill everyone, but on whether or not Pine’s character will have changed over the course of the film. When he does, it’s the kind of personal growth one might find oneself to have accomplished, quite by accident, in the midst of a good D&D session with close friends, and it would be no less surprising there than here.
Dungeons & Dragons, the tabletop role-playing game, exists in a fun and extremely dorky liminal space between Monopoly and a dinner theater production of Camelot. Players assume various roles and make various rolls to see how well they compete against monsters and traps laid out by one of their friends, who, as the Dungeon Master, decides how the events of the story will unfold (sometimes with help from prefab D&D scenarios written by pros). It has completely transcended the vision of Gary Gygax, its creator, who actually did not care at all about the let’s-pretend part of the game and was much more narrowly focused on quantifying the aspects of fantasy literature he seemed to like best, namely the battles and skirmishes. (TSR, the name of Gygax’s company, stands for “Tactical Studies Rules.” Neither Gygax, who died in 2008, nor TSR appear anywhere in the new film, not even the credits.) In his original Monster Manual, Gygax claimed that his legion of creatures were “strictly of this author’s creation,” a patent falsehood: Gygax had stats for a number of Tolkien’s inventions, including hobbits (halflings), orcs, half-orcs, and several more, and it takes a certain kind of hubris to claim to have created Medusa. But the transparency of that lie gave Dungeons & Dragons its charm. Here, in Gygax’s bestiary, sat dozens of fantasy beings from nearly as many legendary and religious traditions, all collated and ranked against one another so that he and his friends could definitively declare and then demonstrate how many dwarves it takes to overrun a dragon, with even the prospect of heroism allowed by higher rolls of the trusty D20 (or, in the original game, a series of chits drawn from a cup, as icosahedral dice were not yet widely available). It was a Reader’s Digest Condensed Mythology that did double duty as a toy box.
It’s hard to translate the joys of a good Dungeons & Dragons session into a non-participatory art form. Honor Among Thieves is the fourth attempt to make a D&D movie, the previous three having vanished down the memory hole for the respective crimes of being 1) terrible (2000’s Dungeons & Dragons); 2) terrible and a Sci-Fi Channel production (2005’s Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God); and 3) terrible, a Sci-Fi Channel production, and a DVD release that came out before it even reached the Sci-Fi Channel (2012’s Dungeons & Dragons: The Book of Vile Darkness). The raw materials—the sourcebooks, manuals, and modules—have already been reduced down from imaginative literature into the kind of text you find on the back of a baseball card. And so the adaptations often look like an attempt to poach powdered eggs: What you end up with may still be recognizable as eggs, in the strictest chemical sense, but everything that once made it malleable enough to be interesting has been carefully removed.
But people continue to try, because a game of Dungeons & Dragons actually can be a kind of unique and thrilling creative enterprise purely on its own. It just needs the full-throated buy-in of all its participants. If you sit around saying “This is stupid” while your friends are hurling magic missiles and swearing fealty to each other, you will be a misery, and you will not be invited back. It is absolutely stupid, but that’s the point. For an adaptation to bind together the powdered-egg bits from the Monster Manual requires a re-creation of that shared agreement to suspend our collective critical faculties and banish any sense of embarrassment—the same kind of agreement that’s the stuff of friendship itself. It’s a tall order. Film is structured and unforgiving, while the joy of D&D comes from those unexpected dice-rolls that give our friends and enemies advantages and handicaps that fly in the face of the way they’ve played the game. The statistical description of an event might simply be that a player rolled a 20 and the Dungeon Master rolled a 1, but the story those two Gygaxian numbers tell is of a wounded bard, half dark elf, betrayed by his people and friendless on the edge of a volcano, letting fly a wild bolt from his crossbow with a scream of hopeless defiance only to see the bolt pierce the eye of the ice dragon bearing down on him and send it toppling, enraged, into the fatal lava below.
The best-loved extensions of the D&D lore, the books (R.A. Salvatore’s dozens of “Forgotten Realms” novels) and video games (Baldur’s Gate, which has survived four different generations of gaming consoles) are those that whip all that egg powder into these moments of unexpected triumph and defeat. And that is what Honor Among Thieves does. It is silly, sure, and it has its contrived moments. (There’s a big chase scene in a maze meant to resemble a dungeon crawl in a way that one only finds in movie adaptations of toys and board games, of which I am sorry to say this is far from the first.) But it is also eminently sincere. And it has some very good things about it: None of the diverse casting feels shoehorned or focus-grouped, and it has little fan baggage beyond the use of various trademarked proper nouns, most of which are pretty easy to decipher as soon as you hear them. (The Underdark is the bad place, the Harpers are the good guys, Lord Neverember is the ruler of the land of Neverwinter, and so on.) It stands on its own, something few recent fantasy films do, a module unto itself. My complaints are things like “Where is the Beholder? I wanted to see a Beholder!” and “Huh, that malapropism probably shouldn’t have made it to the shooting script.” In other words, they are minor and don’t violate the very spirit of the film, which is goofy and generous and unconcerned with anything except providing its roster of pleasant comic actors with Indiana Jones-style one-liners and hair’s-breadth escapes, just as a good Dungeon Master ought to do.