With Peter Jackson’s unbelievably risky The Lord of the Rings trilogy imminent, New Line Cinema wanted to test the water and see if mainstream audiences would be willing to watch a high fantasy film. Naturally worried by the amount of money spent on LotR, they wanted to do this relatively cheaply, and thus was born Dungeons & Dragons, nominally based on the role-playing game but actually having basically nothing to do with it other than a setting that vaguely recalls the Forgotten Realms. Based on the performance of D&D, one could imagine that New Line were even more worried about the potential success of Jackson’s opus, because it bombed hard, failing to make back its budget, and with good reason. This is truly terrible film-making “ and yet, it’s hard not to enjoy it. It’s the best kind of bad film, where it’s not so bad to be painful, but more than bad enough to be absolutely hilarious.
Our heroes are a pair of thieves, Ridley (Justin Whalin) and Snails (Marlon Wayans) who, together with a young mage called Marina (Zoe McLellan), are trying to stop the evil mage Profion (Jeremy Irons) from obtaining a magic sceptre, the Rod of Saville, which will let him control dragons and thus take over the world. The plot basically comes down to a succession of MacGuffin hunts: first for the map to the sceptre; then the Eye of the Dragon, a jewel which will open the door to where the sceptre is kept; and finally for the sceptre itself, building up to the final battle against Profion and his dragon army.
So, yes, the story is basically stop the obviously evil wizard from taking over the world, which I think has only been told about seventy thousand times before. It’s the kind of story which is difficult to pull off even when you’re actually playing D&D, because chances are the players are going to be familiar with fantasy tropes and therefore tired of generic evil wizards whose only motivation is evil for the sake of evil. On the plus side, Jeremy Irons is probably the best thing about this film: the man can chew the scenery with the best of them without even opening his mouth, and the amount of ham he’s able to deliver when given a script as bad as this one is truly wonderful. He allegedly only took the role to pay for the repair of a castle he’d recently bought, and you can tell he’s having the time of his life.
It’s a shame about the rest of the cast, though. Justin Whalin falls into the same trap as Ed Speleers in Eragon, that of taking the awful fantasy movie dead seriously, and Marlon Wayans’ performance is such a painfully racist wacky black man stereotype that the audience will rejoice when the character is killed off to ‘Make Things Personal’ for Ridley. Bruce Payne plays Damodar, Profion’s henchman, and he is similarly adept at hamming things up as his master, but he’s also the victim of probably the most baffling costume design I’ve ever seen in a film. He’s an imposing bald man, clad head to toe in black plate mail… with blue lipstick. Honestly. Consequently, it’s impossible to take him even remotely seriously, and the brain tentacle thing which Profion inflicts on him to keep him obedient doesn’t help matters. Tom Baker as the king of the elves is quite good fun, though.
On other notes, the CGI is terrible, with some of the most fake-looking dragons ever committed to film robbing the grand finale of all its intended spectacle, which was probably inevitable considering that New Line made this on the cheap. The lack of original thought comes to a despair-inducing high when Ridley and Snails must undergo a gauntlet of trials to recover the Eye of the Dragon, stolen trap for trap from the pre-credits sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark. And, as previously mentioned, what is supposed to be the film’s dramatic climax, the murder of Snails by Damodar, is instead one of the film’s funniest scenes, not least because Ridley drops to his knees, looks to the sky and completely unironically screams NOOO!
There is nothing to honestly recommend about Dungeons & Dragons. It’s inept on every possible level, and it was a wonderful thing for the genre when The Lord of the Rings came along and swept it under the carpet. Nonetheless, it is a pricelessly good time, and one of the best accidental comedies ever made, and as a result I actually do recommend that you see it. If nothing else, it will make you appreciate LotR a lot more, realising that this dreck was New Line’s previous stab at high fantasy. Although, a word of warning to people who play D&D: don’t expect it to have anything to do with the source material. It’s better for your sanity that way. Seriously, the ways that this film doesn’t make sense in terms of actual Dungeons & Dragons could take up another review by themselves.