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-[Film Reviews]-, English Language Film Industries, Hollywood

‘Dungeons & Dragons’ (2023): If at First You Don’t Succeed…

Directed by: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley || Produced by: Jeremy Latcham, Brian Goldner, Nick Meyer

Screenplay by: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Michael Gilio || Starring: Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Rege-Jean Page, Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis, Hugh Grant

Music by: Lorne Balfe || Cinematography: Barry Peterson || Edited by: Dan Lebental || Country: United States || Language: English

Running Time: 134 minutes

The original roleplaying game (RPG) that is the Dungeons & Dragons intellectual property (IP) impacted my childhood in numerous small yet significant ways. Created by Gary Gygax and David Arneson for Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. in 1974, which was later purchased by the publisher, Wizards of the Coast, of Magic: The Gathering fame, in 1997, which, in turn, itself was absorbed by Hasbro in 1999, Dungeons & Dragons (henceforth, D&D) is responsible for popularizing the modern concepts of the fantasy genre beyond the dense nerd bibles that are J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1954-1955; LOTR) novels. I played the tabletop RPG for a brief yet intense phase during my middle school to early high school years, enjoyed the Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance (2001, 2004) videogames over a similar period, and puzzled at the first theatrical feature-film adaptation of the property, the latter directed by longtime fan and then 29-year old film producer, Courtney Solomon, and released in 2000. The irony that New Line Cinema distributed that disastrous film a year before their release of — you guessed it — Peter Jackson’s adaptation of LOTR (2001-2003) and revolutionized fantasy filmmaking, is lost on few cinephiles to this day.

Top: In a clever twist, one of D&D’s biggest set-pieces takes place as a flashback narrated by intermittent voiceovers from various reanimated corpses. Bottom: Justice Smith demonstrates usage of a “hither-thither” staff to get around a fallen bridge.

Not just the financial disaster, but the sheer critical panning of that latter production maintained a stink on the D&D property on film for decades until 2017, when Hasbro moved a reboot of the property to Paramount Pictures, which they planned for release in summer 2021. Various scheduling adjustments with the still, as of this writing, yet to be released Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning, Part One (2023; again, why can’t we use numbered sequels?), as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, pushed the film to April 2023, opening to positive reviews yet mediocre box office returns. Written and directed by the filmmaking duo of Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, the 2023 film (let’s also refer to it as D&D, shall we?) channels its chief filmmakers’ comedy background (e.g. Horrible Bosses [2011], the 2015 Vacation reboot, Game Night [2018]) inside this archetypal high fantasy diegesis to create a fun-for-all-ages romp about teamwork, friendly banter, and old-fashioned RPG problem-solving that outpaces, if just barely, its generic FX-driven Hollywood shell.

Let’s start with the good, as I often do: All of the main cast, save for one big exception, give charismatic performances and have great chemistry with one another. The banter between lead Chris Pine (the bard), gruff brawler Michelle Rodriguez (the barbarian; see below), underconfident underdog Justice Smith (the sorcerer), snarky shapeshifter Sophia Lillis (the druid), and others (e.g. Regé-Jean Page as a paladin) is rife with clever jokes between all parties; these diverse characters and their various powers shine brightest in the cleverer action sequences that involve more than mindless hack-‘n-slash combat or weightless computer generated imagery (CGI), such as Pine and Rodriguez’s escape from a prison in the prologue, an extended series of “interviews” with decrepit corpses in a graveyard, a digitally stitched oner where Lillis transforms into a series of animals to escape capture, and an extended, multipart infiltration of a heavily guarded treasure vault. All the scenes that involve solving riddles or elaborate puzzles in some way make the most of the fantasy characteristics of our cast, sort of like The X-Men (2000-2019) in a way.

Other minor positives of this new D&D have to do with the absence of negatives common to Hollywood blockbusters, such as CGI overload in bloated action set-pieces, insufferable, unnecessary comic relief side characters, or incoherent shaky-cam in close-quarters combat. Though the movie still feels long at 134 minutes, it’s not a 2.5 hour+ slog that many contemporary American tentpole features have become.

Now for the bad: By far the biggest hurdle in the movie for me was Rodriguez’s female costar, whose character was written fine but whose dialogue, jokes, and personality were consistently weighed down by the dull, mumbling bore that is Rodriguez’s performance. Like Olivia Wilde, Rodriguez is a successful Hollywood staple from the past couple decades whose prominence confuses me; her line delivery in D&D, as in Resident Evil (2002), SWAT (2003), The Fast and the Furious (2001-), Avatar (2009), and LOST (2004-2010), is flat and her chemistry with her costars, uninspired. She has no screen presence or emotional range and I do not know why she continues to get such high-profile roles after so many years.

Other complaints have to do with the generic art style of the film as well as the general predictable nature of the story; you can see “plot twists,” character backstories, and plot armor explanations a mile away, which deflates tension throughout the story. The digital look and feel of the world is also a far cry from the lived in, fleshed out setting of LOTR’s Middle-Earth or the grimy alternative medieval landscapes of Game of Thrones (2011-2019); all the different costumes, set-designs, props, and creatures feel like a hodge-podge of generic fantasy highlights from dozens of different sources.

Chris Pine: What is that again? Justice Smith: It’s an owlbear. Sophia Lillis shows off her shapeshifting abilities in the first act.

In the end, though, it’s hard to criticize D&D ’23 too much given how reliably entertaining it is. I wish movies like these would stop casting uncharismatic stars in major roles due to their recognizable status in other, blander franchises, but I’m also relieved at how character-driven this otherwise FX-heavy blockbuster is. Restrained inside a vanilla, CGI-heavy package though it may be, the D&D brand on film has been rehabilitated as far as I’m concerned.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: On paper, the 2023 film isn’t too different from the 2000 original save for the budget and experience of the directors, but the execution of all the elements on display are of vastly higher quality in the former. With a good cast, creative set-pieces, and just enough directorial restraint, Dungeons and Dragons shows mainstream life remains in the original RPG IP.

However… you’ll never convince me that Michelle Rodriguez is a charismatic actress after half a dozen roles across half a dozen franchises of nothing. While not as excessive in size, scale, or cartoony FX as Transformers (2009-2017) or your typical superhero ensemble (e.g. Justice League [2017]), D&D ’23 still feels like a generic, digitally cleaned fantasy film a la The Hobbit (2012-2014) theatrical releases.


? Is this movie even gonna gross its $150 million budget? Also, who greenlit a budget of that size in the first place?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


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