Long-time readers probably won’t need this confirmation, but I’ll admit it anyway: I’m a geek. I never got heavily into Dungeons and Dragons as a kid, but that happened mainly because my friends didn’t care for the game. With no fellow travelers, I couldn’t get terribly involved in the cult, but the arrival of out first Apple III computer in the spring of 1982 broadened my horizons. No licensed D&D computer games existed back then, but there were some fine knock-offs. The best was “Wizardry”, a wonderful dungeon romp that filled an absurd number of my hours during the summer of 1982; almost 20 years later, “Wizardry” remains possibly my favorite game experience.
Although I may have an affinity for that kind of fantasy role-playing game, other forms of entertainment that featured “sword and sorcery” themes rarely entertained me. I like some of these kinds of films to a moderate degree - 1996’s Dragonheart was pretty decent - but for the most part, they leave me cold. Even the most respected flicks in the genre such as Excalibur and weaker entries like Krull fail to arise any interest in me.
Nonetheless, I was curious to take a look at 2000’s Dungeons and Dragons. This was the first film to boast the official D&D license, and with Jeremy Irons in tow, it seemed like it might be a fun experience.
Or maybe not. While I disagree with some of the absolutely scathing reviews that have attacked the film, I can’t go too far to defend it either. D&D musters a few entertaining moments, but as a whole, it falls flat.
The story is standard fare. A commoner - thief Ridley Freeborn (Justin Whalin) - and his moronic friend Snails (Marlon Wayans) get unwittingly involved in a quest to save the empire of Izmer from the nasty efforts of an evil mage named Profion (Irons). There’s a teen empress stuck in the middle as well; Savina (Thora Birch) wants to create a society in which all citizens are treated as equals, which isn’t currently the case in mage-dominated Izmer.
Both Savina and Profion have little to do in the tale, really, except wait for the results of the romp that features Ridley, Snails, apprentice mage Marina Pretensa (Zoe McLellan), dwarf Elwood Gutworthy (Lee Arenberg) and scout elf Norda (Kristen Wilson). They’re out to find the magical Rod of Sevrille, a device that will control red dragons, before Profion’s minions can get it. Along the way, Profion’s stooge Damodar (Bruce Payne) causes the party all sorts of trouble with his nasty ways.
On the surface, the plot may seem mildly complicated, but it’s really quite simple. At its core, this is just a big-screen rendition of a traditional D&D romp. We pick up a party along the way and see how they deal with the myriad of challenges thrown at them. Granted, Ridley is the focal point of this group, and the others largely seem to be along for the ride with little to do other than add color, but it’s still not conceptually different than the kind of quest one might find in a game of D&D.
However, a D&D contest likely would offer greater depth and originality than this fairly bland action fantasy. At best, the acting could be competent. As our main heroes, Whalin and McLellan provided attractive presences, and I didn’t think either did anything to harm their roles. That said, neither actor offered a great deal of spark or charm to their parts; they looked cute and managed to work through their lines acceptably well, but that was about it.
Surprisingly, the bigger names in the film were the worst participants. Wayans seems to be in a different movie altogether. Perhaps this was due to the fact he did D&D in the middle of his time on Requiem for a Dream, but I always felt like his portrayal of Snails seemed out of place; his look made it seem as though he thought this was Orcs In the Hood. Actually, the goofy tones he leant to Snails would have seemed more at home in Scary Movie where he played an equally dippy character. I don’t dislike Wayans as a performer, but he felt disconnected with this project.
Similar comments apply to Thora Birch’s work as Empress Savina. During an audio commentary, the director states that he didn’t steal this character from Queen Amidala in The Phantom Menace, and I believe him. However, the similarities were striking, as were the flat performances by the teen women who played the roles. Actually, Birch’s bland and lifeless work here makes Natalie Portman’s turn in TPM look like Oscar material. I’m not sure Birch knew that she was involved in the production; she seems so subdued that I think they may have sedated her. Perhaps she thought this was the sequel to American Beauty and she fired up some of the joints her boyfriend in that film smoked. All I know is that her work was painfully stilted and flat.
On the other hand, we have Jeremy Irons. It’s hard to believe that a decade ago this guy took home the Oscar for his work in Reversal of Fortune. Perhaps Irons still has all of the skills he possessed then, but none of them are on display during D&D. He goes a route totally opposite of that taken by Birch as he overacts relentlessly. I think this was the “biggest” performance I’ve ever seen; it’s certainly the broadest portrayal I can recall from a major actor. Irons is so over the top that it’s astonishing. Sure, this sort of role needs a larger than life presence, but there are limits to that, and Irons consistently crosses those. Granted, his scenery-chewing can become amusing at times, but it felt way past the boundaries of necessary behavior; Irons goes so far that he makes it clear he feels the material is beneath him. If you’re going to do this sort of film, you can’t look down your nose at it; Irons’ approach may have occurred to distance himself from the absurdity of the project, but it ultimately only presented himself in a negative light.
The story is serviceable, as were the special effects. Actually, the visual elements could be quite hit or miss. Some of the computer graphics came across as pretty artificial-looking; at times I felt as though I was watching a filmed version of a PC game. However, the effects generally were acceptable; they could seem cartoony, but that style is more acceptable in this kind of fantasy than it would be in a more reality-based affair. No, the effects weren’t very good, but I never thought they took me out of the story. Perhaps I’m just feeling generous due to some poor effects I’ve seen recently; I felt much more negatively about the CGI seen in Vertical Limit and Little Nicky.
Bizarrely, one other facet of D&D makes up both a strength and a weakness for the film. As I watched the movie, it appeared patently obvious that the filmmakers really liked both the Star Wars and Indiana Jones flicks. Not only does D&D share a tone akin to those offerings, but a number of its scenes blatantly steal from them. One closely patterns itself from the cantina sequence in Star Wars, and another obviously takes from the opening to Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s a fine line between homage and theft, and D&D frequently crosses it.
So how come I felt this aspect of the movie also constituted a strength? Because although those elements were very derivative, they offered the most fun sequences found in D&D. When Ridley goes through a tricky maze to find a prize, it may steal from Raiders, but it was still quite exciting and thrilling in its own right. With dogfighting dragons and a sword duel, the film’s climax clearly “borrowed” from Star Wars, but it really worked pretty well.
During those and a few other occasions, I was able to forgive the many flaws found during Dungeons and Dragons. Actually, I may not have been able to truly forgive them, but I found them to be much less problematic. D&D has gotten a terrible rap since it hit screens last winter, and I think the negativity isn’t really deserved. Make no mistake: this is a fairly weak film that does nothing to expand the genre. However, it provides some moments of fun and excitement, so the flick wasn’t a total loss. It’s not something I’d want to watch again, but I’ve seen many less enjoyable films.
Dungeons and Dragons appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. If flaws appeared during D&D, I certainly couldn’t discern them, as the DVD offered a truly terrific picture.
Sharpness looked consistently excellent. All elements of the image seemed crisp and well-defined, and I never saw any signs of softness or haziness. No moiré effects or jagged edges cropped up either, and print flaws appeared to be similarly absent. Some light grain cropped up during a couple of low light interior sequences, but those appeared to be part otherwise the original film itself; the variations in brightness found in these segments seemed to cause some graininess during the darker sections. In any case, no other problems arose during the movie, and the print seemed to be nicely fresh and clean.
D&D boasted an absolutely stunning palette, and the colors were reproduced magnificently. The movie used a wide variety of hues, and they all came across clearly and vividly. From deep purples to rich reds and lush golds, the entire spectrum was gorgeous at all times, and I never saw any signs of bleeding, noise or other concerns. Black levels also appeared wonderfully deep and dense, and shadow detail looked appropriately heavy but never excessively opaque. All in all, this was the kind of outstanding transfer we’ve come to expect from New Line.
Also terrific was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Dungeons and Dragons. I thought the soundfield started a little slowly, but once it caught fire, it became an exceedingly active and engaging presence. The front spectrum displayed great activity throughout the film. Even during more subdued sequences, the forward channels offered a nice blend of ambient sounds that seemed well-located and convincing. The action scenes, all of which appeared broad and encompassing, nicely complemented these aspects. All five speakers received a fine workout throughout much of the film, as the surrounds added a solid layer of reinforcement to the mix.
The rears also contributed quite a lot of unique information when necessary. The various fight scenes worked quite well, but two sequences stood out in my mind. First, when Ridley romps through the maze, the sounds of swinging blades and jets of flame nicely filled the room; these became tremendously active segments. Even better was the entire climactic battle during which dragons flew about the screen. They also flitted about the room, as the mix put the flap of wings all around the soundfield. It was a fine effect that brought life to the film.
Audio quality seemed to be positive. Dialogue sounded natural and distinct, with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Music appeared clear and bright, and the score displayed good dynamic range. The music didn’t really stand out during the movie, but it seemed quite well-reproduced with no apparent concerns. Effects also were clean and accurate, and they showed nicely qualities. I heard no distortion and usually found solid bass response. At times I felt the low end could have been stronger - the dragon footsteps heard at the film’s start should have provided greater oomph - but as a whole, the track offered nice depth. Ultimately, I thought that D&D featured a very strong soundtrack that nicely complemented the movie.
As part of New Line’s “Platinum Series”, one might expect a slew of extras to accompany Dungeons and Dragons, and one won’t be disappointed. The supplements start with two separate audio commentaries, the first of which comes from director Courtney Solomon, actor Justin Whalin, and D&D co-creator Dave Arneson. Solomon and Whalin were recorded together for their screen-specific remarks, while statements from Arneson have been edited in along the way. Arneson occasionally drops a tidbit about the structure of the game, and he provides a few comments about what he saw during a visit to the set, but for the vast majority of this track, it’s Solomon and Whalin’s baby.
And that’s surprisingly fine with me. When I first started the commentary, I feared that it would be a tough listen. The two men seemed excessively loose, and I thought the entire track would offer little more than their giggling inanities.
However, the piece actually offers a lot of solid information, and though Solomon’s laugh - a hissing “sss-sss-sss-sss” affair - could get on my nerves, the chemistry between the two meant that the track featured few dull moments. We hear about a nice variety of subjects, from changes made to the original script to mishaps on the set to general production issues. Whalin provides a good point of view; we don’t often hear the actor’s perspective about effects-intensive flicks, so his remarks give us a lot of compelling information. All in all, this was a fun and lively track that I enjoyed much more than I expected.
Solomon and Arneson appear on a second audio commentary as well, along with cinematographer Doug Milsome. This track used the same format heard in the first one, whereby Solomon and Milsome were taped together; Arneson was recorded separately and his statements were edited into the piece. Arneson got into a few more details about the game, and he added some other notes about his experiences with the film, but again, his portion of the commentary was fairly minimal.
Solomon and Arneson dominate the piece, and their discussion display a more technical bent than the chat heard during the first commentary. Quite a few remarks about lighting challenges abound, and other issues in a similar vein predominate the track. It was a more subdued conversation when compared to the Solomon/Whalin one; there’s a chemistry between Solomon and Milsome, but it’s not nearly as strong. Actually, this commentary could get a bit annoying, as the two often talked over each other in a manned that occasionally made it tough to hear what either said. Ultimately, this was a decent track but not a terribly good one; a fair amount of material is repeated from the first commentary, and the presentation wasn’t as much fun.
Next we find two documentaries. As its title states, “Let the Games Begin: A Profile and History of Adventure Gaming” takes a short look at the creation and evolution of D&D. We hear from movie participants Courtney Solomon and Justin Whalin as well as Mark Ordesky of Fine Line Features. In addition, there are interview clips with folks from Wizards of the Coast, the company that distributes D&D; we discover remarks from CEO Peter Adkison, game designer Jonathan Tweet, and Vice President Ryan Dancey.
While I didn’t think the 15 minute and 25 second program provided a terrific history of the game, it still was an entertaining piece. Solomon and Adkison dominated the show as the various participants discussed the story of the game’s beginnings and its growth, and they also give us details about how it’s played. Much of the fun to be found here came from their personal tales of D&D addiction, such as how Ordesky’s choice of college was influenced by his love of the game. It seemed odd that we didn’t hear from either of D&D’s creators, though; we briefly see shots of Gary Gygax from a convention, but Dave Arneson is nowhere to be found. Since he appeared elsewhere on the DVD, it was strange that he didn’t more clearly discuss the game’s early years. Nonetheless, “Let the Games Begin” was a fairly interesting and entertaining program.
The other documentary is simply called “The Making of D&D”, and its focus seems similarly self-evident. This 20 minute and 35 second show takes a brief glance at the creation of the film, with a very strong emphasis on the technical side of the equation. Other than actor Whalin, no performers appear in the documentary, and even his participation was modest. For the most part, the program stuck with various aspects of the film’s special effects and production design. Solomon and others such as creature creator Tully Summers, production designer Bryce Perrin, and visual effects supervisor Charles Darby give us a decent look at the technical side of the equation.
It’s not all dry data, however. At the start, Solomon provides a nice overview of how he became involved in the project and the long road it took to make it to the screen. In addition, we see a lot of good footage from the set; I enjoy that kind of “behind the scenes” material and the shots here were quite interesting. Ultimately, this was a fairly average but still watchable program.
One aspect of many of the supplements made me kind of sad. Apparently most or all of them were completed before the theatrical release of the film, and we hear many mentions of what the filmmakers would like to do in the sequel. While stranger things have happened, I seriously doubt that D&D will spawn a second movie, at least not one helmed by the same folks. The movie took in a weak $15 million at the box office, which doesn’t exactly inspire a studio to invest more heavily in a project. Anyway, the participants seemed like nice folks, so it was a little depressing to hear their high hopes when the outlook seems bleak.
End of editorial - back to the extras! Next we get a collection of Deleted Scenes. The DVD includes 11 edited snippets in all for a total of 19 minutes and 15 seconds worth of footage. None of these were terribly fascinating, though they added some decent character moments for smaller roles like Elwood and Snails. There are also a couple of pieces that would have made the movie were it not for budgetary problems; D&D was made for a mere $35 million, which is absolutely nothing for this sort of effects-heavy flick. Because of the relatively small budget, compromises had to be made. Director Solomon liked some of these segments but he didn’t have the money to complete them.
That means that we find unfinished shots for some of these pieces; animatics or no elements show up where CGI should have appeared. In a bizarre way, this makes the scenes more interesting. It’s like two for the price of one; we see some unused material plus we get to view part of the production process.
The deleted scenes can be watched with or without commentary from Solomon. As was the case with his two feature tracks, he remains a chatty fellow, and he does all that I ask of a director who discusses edited footage: he tells us why the clips didn’t make the film. Actually, he goes above and beyond that mission and he adds a fair amount of useful information during his chat. It’s definitely worth your while to check out the scenes a second time with Solomon’s commentary activated.
Another section of the DVD offers Special Effects Deconstruction. At last, you’ll have the chance to use the “angle” button on your remote! This program provides four different scenes and lets you view them during different stages of effects completion. There is a basic stage, an intermediate period, and the final film. Each of the four segments runs between 30 seconds and two minutes, 10 seconds for a total of 13 minutes of viewing if you watch all three stages of each snippet. These were fairly interesting, though I must admit stage one was always the most fun; it’s more entertaining to see what the actors had to work with, a period that is best represented during the most basic stage.
Cast and Crew provides filmographies for actors Whalin, Marlon Wayans, Thora Birch, Zoe McLellan, Kristen Wilson, Lee Arenberg, Bruce Payne and Jeremy Irons plus director Solomon and director of photography Douglas Milsome. The film’s theatrical trailer completes the main roster of DVD supplements.
However, viewers with the necessary equipment will be able to access a slew of DVD-ROM materials. We get the movie’s “Original Website”, one that seemed to be quite well-executed. There’s a lot of information to be found here, from details about the story and the actors to production photos, concept drawings, and notes about dragons and weapons. It’s a nice little site that will be sure to add to fans’ enjoyment of the movie.
The “Hot Spot” sends you to a New Line site that apparently offers revolving pieces of information and activities. When I checked it out, it went to a trivia game that asked questions about a variety of New Line films. “Baldur’s Gate II Demo” offers just what the title indicates: a shortened version of the very popular PC game. I didn’t play it for one simple reason: I don’t want to get hooked! I’ve heard great things about “BG II” and I have a feeling that if I start it, I won’t stop. There’s just not enough time in the day…
Lastly, the DVD-ROM area provides a “D&D Fast Play Game”. This gives you all of the rules and the scenario to play a D&D contest based on the movie. I also didn’t perform this, but I thought it was a fun little extra that should be great for D&D players.
This DVD will certainly be adored by fans of Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t know how many folks fall into that category, but the disc should impress anyone who liked the film. Personally, the movie did little for me. It offered a couple of decent sequences but as a whole, it was fairly clumsy and silly. The DVD provides excellent picture and sound plus a fine roster of supplements typical for a New Line Platinum package. If you already like the film, it’s a no-brainer and you’ll be happy with this DVD. Otherwise, it might merit a rental if you think the subject matter interests you; the movie’s hit or miss, but the high quality DVD makes it more tempting.