Dungeons & Dragons (2000)

by Todd R. Ramlow


+ another review of Dungeons & Dragons by Cynthia Fuchs

Dumb and Dumber

cover art

Dungeons & Dragons

Director: Courtney Solomon
Cast: Justin Whalin, Marlon Wayans, Zoe McLellan, Thora Birch, Jeremy Irons

(New Line Cinema)

No, my title doesn’t refer to the Farrelly brothers’ film. Rather, I’m talking about Courtney Solomon’s Dungeons & Dragons, which far surpasses that Jim Carrey-Jeff Daniels idiot fest, if only because it refuses to recognize just how dumb it is. Dungeons & Dragons takes itself far too seriously and ends up being just plain stupid.

Some nine years ago, the story goes, at the tender age of 20, aspiring filmmaker Courtney Solomon secured an option for a film based on the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, an option that had eluded many a big Hollywood type, as D&D’s parent company—Wizards of the Coast, Inc.—feared such a person would “distort” (as the film’s production notes attest) the “game world” to suit his or her own ends. Exactly what a “distortion” of this “game world” would look like, or how Solomon’s film doesn’t make the RPG’s imaginative fictions look ridiculous is beyond me. Nevertheless, this is the creation fable upon which this film is based, and through which it attempts to claim some cred among die-hard RPG fans, who will undoubtedly make up most if not all of the audience for the film. The fable continues: Solomon never went to film school (and thus he is not bogged down by artistic pretensions, but wants instead to “make big action-adventure movies like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg”), and was an avid D&D player himself. He spent a year and a half convincing Wizards to give him the film option they had denied so many others. And on and on and on.

With all this avowed dedication to D&D, its values and ethics, its alternative vision of a utopic world, and all the time it took Solomon to secure funding for the film, you would think he could have come up with a much better movie than the one we see here. The story is hackneyed, the acting atrocious across the boards, and the production values generally dismal. This being a fantasy film, the special effects essentially drive it. Admittedly, the dragons are pretty cool—these CGI monsters swoop and slither through the skies wreaking havoc and leaving waste in their paths. But we don’t see enough of them: we get one measly dragon at the very beginning of the film, and then an airborne dragon war for about 15 minutes at the end. Other than that, Dungeons & Dragons is largely special-effect-free and I am left to wonder where the film’s $36 million price tag went. In one scene, as our under-dog company of adventurers wanders a local bazaar, we see an armed dwarf stroll past with an obviously plastic battle-axe strapped to his back. Really, couldn’t Solomon at least try for some sort of “authenticity”?

The story pits the evil Mage Profion (Jeremy Irons, a usually first rate actor who stinks up every scene he is in) against the young Empress Savina (Thora Birch) in a power struggle over the future of the realm of Izmer. Of course, Profion represents an oppressive, established social and political order, and Empress Savina the revolutionary idealism of youth in her desire to promote Civil Rights and the fundamental equality of the magic-using aristocracy (the Mages) and working class commoners. Although this generational struggle is hardly surprising, it does hint at what has made the RPG Dungeons & Dragons so popular for over 25 years. The game offers a rich alternative to the quotidian dreariness of many young people’s lives, and gives a sense of independence and power for the young boys and girls that play it (in truth, it is largely a male enterprise), in particular those who might flounder on the athletic field, where so much of young manhood is measured these days. D&D the game allows them to inhabit characters that are at the center of all the action, to reimagine ethics and a normative social order, and to reflect on very real questions of liberty and equality through fictional race relations (Human, Elf, Dwarf, etc.). These transformative social possibilities are, however, forestalled in Solomon’s Dungeons & Dragons, in every overwrought scene in which the plucky young Empress goes up against the corrupt Profion, and in the differences between Elf, Dwarf, and Human the film goes to such lengths to establish. While Dungeons & Dragons is directly concerned with class-based prejudice (Empress Savina’s political party-line is that Mages and commoners must be regarded as equal), it elides the ways its own representations reproduce racial prejudices—Human, Elf, and Dwarf are definitely not the same in this universe, and nowhere near equal.

After a series of palace intrigues that leaves the Empress to fend off Profion and the Mages Council alone, another crew takes up the bulk of the action—the magic school student Marina (Zoe McLellan), neophyte thieves Ridley Freeborn (Justin Whalin) and Snails (Marlon Wayans), and the surly Dwarf Elwood (Lee Arenberg) set out in search of the magic talisman that will save the realm. With only this brief set up, you know the rest of the story. Indeed, Dungeons & Dragons is mostly cribbed from other sci-fi and/or fantasy films of the past 20 years or so. The Mages Council and the Council meetings directly rip off the Jedi Council of the Star Wars films, and particularly the Council scenes from The Phantom Menace. And the scenes in which Ridley must solve the riddles of a labyrinth are more than a little reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the end, there will be an unavoidable tragedy, there will be a burgeoning love interest, and Ridley will save the day. If only he could have saved me from Courtney Solomon’s cinema of cruelty.

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