The world isn’t ending. Probably. Yet somehow in the realm of blockbuster cinema and high fantasy, it’s always seven seconds to midnight. Maybe that’s why the prospect of Armageddon has become so tedious at the multiplex? It may also be a factor in why Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldestein’s mirthful and easygoing adaptation of the famed roleplaying game, is so charming. At last, here is a crowdpleaser that actually pleases, and not least of all because the stakes are as small as an evening with some mates going on “a quest” by way of a 20-sided die. Imagine that.
As the second big screen adaptation of the tabletop game, Honor Among Thieves feels about a million miles away from the sinister image D&D conjured in 1980s newspapers and at church luncheons. Really, this is a movie that’s as heavy metal as Air Supply. But that also makes for a breath of fresh air in its own right during a moment where most blockbusters are mired by globs of CGI sludge, and many high fantasy stories, on film and television, bear the weight of war and fratricide.
The Dungeons & Dragons movie, by design, eschews those flavors of bombast for something a little shaggier and a lot more winsome. By echoing the type of anachronistic medieval fantasy movies actually made in the ‘80s—your Princess Brides and your Willows instead of J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin—the real magic at work here is a nonstop charm offensive.
Take Edgin, Chris Pine’s quick-witted yet perpetually sweaty bard-turned-thief. When the film begins, we discover Edgin is not a particularly good minstrel or criminal, considering we pick up with him and sidekick Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) as they’re imprisoned in a snowy fortress on (just) charges of thievery. If this was a D&D character sheet, there wouldn’t necessarily be a lot to like about Edgin, but as played with a twinkle in his eye by Pine that never quite breaks the fourth wall, nor ever goes for the gravitas of the Royal Shakespeare Company, there is something effortlessly disarming about this Bard who can’t seem to get anything right.
That same effect applies to the overall film. As with most modern blockbusters, the picture lives in a world populated by digital vistas and creatures like a fire-breathing dragon, yet there’s always a skewed twist. For instance, that fire-breathing dragon has a bit of a weight problem. It would love to devour our hapless heroes… alas it struggles getting even through the ancient mining doorway.
Edgin’s eventual crew of crooks is likewise struggling with their fair share of hangups: Justice Smith is Simon, a Sorcerer who lacks self-confidence; Sophia Lillis is Doric, a tiefling Druid who’s lost her tribe; and the aforementioned Holga… well, she’s a lonely Barbarian warrior who mostly resents being roped into Edgin’s harebrained schemes because it’s caused them to be separated from Edgin’s daughter (Chloe Coleman), whom Holga raised as her own.
It’s that last uncomfortable twist that facilitates the quest, with Edgin and Holga building a team to obtain a magical gizmo here, and a doohickey there, that will reunite them with the child. But often it’s an excuse for the group to get waylaid into crackerjack comedy bits, such as a scene where Simon briefly resurrects from a graveyard the corpses of an ancient battle—only these walking (or at least reclining) dead will stay alive long enough to answer just five questions. It sounds macabre but in effect it comes off a lot closer to Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine, where it turns out the dead of a losing side of a battle have very limited perspectives as to what killed them.
Obviously the emphasis on comedy and a breezy, devil-may-care attitude positions Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves to be viewed as a piece with the Marvel Studios formula, which has come to dominate big budget spectacle movies for the last 10-15 years. And while that was clearly a guiding star when this project was developed, as actually realized by Daley and Goldstein, who previously directed Game Night (and had a hand in the script for Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming), D&D plays more as an outright comedy instead of as a middle-of-the-road jack of all trades entertainment. In other words, you actually laugh here instead of smile as the next battle scene glazes over.
It’s to the film’s credit that Honor Among Thieves is unashamedly trying to keep the chuckles going throughout with its chubby dragons and bumbling cadavers. It’s also more visually pleasing than at least the last five years of MCU flicks because the directors and their cinematographer Barry Peterson take the time to make the thing look polished. Filmed on locations in Northern Ireland and Iceland, D&D doesn’t quite look like a Peter Jackson movie, but it does look like an actual film. The emphasis on practical effects in some of the creature designs also enhances the movie’s appeal and occasional belly laughs.
Two of the secret weapons of landing the loudest guffaws are Hugh Grant and Regé-Jean Page. Grant in particular steals the movie as Forge, a con man and scoundrel that reconfirms that the greatest rom-com star of the ‘90s and 2000s really wanted to play sniveling cads all along. While not the film’s ultimate antagonist, Forge is an overbearingly smarmy presence with a cheshire grin and constant self-promotional conviviality. It should be infuriating, and yet it is ingratiating as Grant walks away with the most giggles.
Bridgerton’s Page also does well as Xenk, a Paladin who I am assured by actual D&D players is the most noble and holy class of knight in the roleplaying game. As someone who’s never actually played it though, I’m assuming this would make him your Aragorn or Eddard Stark. It would seem the Honor Among Thieves writers/directors agree, since Page’s Xenk essentially acts as a parody of those types: a knight so good and devout that he comes off as downright insufferable to Edgin. The scenes between Pine and Page hint at a buddy comedy that might’ve been in a different script, but even in the limited ensemble setting it’s still a highlight.
Alas, not all of the party benefits so well. As aforementioned, Honor Among Thieves is more of an outright comedy, and when the movie is focused squarely on the laughs it casts a beguiling spell. However, in its effort to tick every box, some of the dramatic beats fall flat, particularly near the end where plot twists will give most viewers the gift of prophecy, as you’ll know where things are headed 30-45 minutes before the characters do. Also not all members of the questing party are equally served, with the conflicts endured by Lillis and Smith’s characters feeling largely tacked on. Smith’s doubting Thomas arc is particularly unenviable when juxtaposed with a comedy-adventure setting where everyone else is allowed to just go with it.
However, these are smaller inconveniences in a journey that is wholly enjoyable and which seemed to leave everyone in the SXSW audience eager to go on it again with their own guilds at home. In a dark age of franchise beige, this movie’s splash of off-color magic really does make for a good game.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves premiered at SXSW on March 10 and opens wide on March 31.