Wednesday, November 8, 2023

D&D Watch: Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (2023)

I don't know who that @#$%ing dragon is, because he's not in the movie

Watched:  11/07/2023
Format:  Amazon
Viewing:  First
Director(s):  John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein

Ok.  So.

Back when I was probably too young to be playing, my brother picked up the basic boxed set of Dungeons and Dragons rules in the fall of 1982.  From probably 1982 to around 1987 or so, we played the game regularly, making our way swiftly to Advanced D&D and the much more fun rule books and catalogs of monsters, spells, what-have-you that comprised D&D in the 1980's.  

We didn't so much quit playing Dungeons and Dragons as move on to other games.  Our interest in the fantasy world and complex rule systems of that game depleting as we found sci-fi games, games based on popular comic books, movies, etc...  

I could not tell you when I last played D&D itself, but I assume probably 7th grade.  And, I don't think I've touched a tabletop RPG since college.  I don't have a problem with them, but we all just sort of stopped making time for them.  Clearly I am into dork stuff that often shares retail space with RPG materials, so it's not that.  I just don't hang with people who game, I guess.

There's a lot of water under the bridge with Dungeons and Dragons itself, which has been sold and resold as a property, and now belongs to an offshoot of Hasbro.  I won't get into the history of D&D here, or why everything is stupidly complicated, but we'll just leave it at: people are complex and companies often make bad decisions.

But a curious thing happened.  

Sometime a few years ago, Dungeons and Dragons became something people talked about publicly.  This was completely mind-boggling to me.  

Jobs I started had Slack channels devoted to the game and people would meet to play outside of work hours.  People discussed their D&D habit in stand-up, like they were discussing going hiking or out to play tennis.  

For someone who grew up being told Dungeons and Dragons was going to lead to me going mad, joining in with dark forces, or whatever Satanic Panic thing was being discussed that week, this was wild.  Heck, in my day, they made a whole Tom Hanks movie about Tom Hanks going crazy because he played too much D&D.

Anyway, the mainstreaming of all the shit I did not talk about outside a trusted circle as a kid occasionally really fucks with me, and this is kind of that.  D&D was maybe the biggest draw for folks in the 1980's to get to tell you unsolicited that  you were going to hell - and unlike heavy metal fans, it wasn't part of the fun.  Fortunately, I have a devout mother who just rolled her eyes at those people, and let us play wizard fight games.

I'm also old enough to remember the 2000 edition of Dungeons and Dragons, which is the last movie I remember walking out of.  It was super terrible, and it took literally no convincing to get both Jamie and my brother to get up and leave when I pitched the idea.

So, it's been a while.  But I figured - how much could D&D have changed?  And the answer is:  the movie we watched was certainly called Dungeons and Dragons, and if I squinted I could see the game I played in the mid-80's, but a lot has surely changed, basically making it a roughly 75% new thing to me.  And that's fine.  Good on them for continuing to do whatever D&D has been doing.

The movie's biggest challenge is that the movie as a movie exists in a world with Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, and so it doesn't want to be those things.  Instead, it settles on a sort of generic "fantasy" look that has no particularly cohesive design elements.  If one considers Star Wars, a land of total make-believe, if I mention Mos Eisley, Dagobah, Coruscant, etc...  you can instantly visualize each location, and, perhaps, how some individuals look and feel, how they dress, etc....  I'd also suggest you have immediate ideas when you consider various geographic locations in LOTR.  But this movie is just a sort of hodge-podge of  buildings of no particular look or feel and leather and cloaks for characters.  

Are there species?  Well, you won't find the most popular ones from any D&D I know, because that shit was straight ripped off from Tolkein, anyway.  So we get cat and bird people.  We get fawns, I guess?  I don't know.  

I won't dwell on this too much, but I was genuinely surprised at how little the movie seemed to care about the design element and creating a coherent look or looks.  It's kind of the fun part of making a movie like this, I'd think.

The movie absolutely puts together a "party" and they have a "campaign" that takes them through the world.  We get our bard, I guess? in Chris Pine.  A barbarian played by Michelle Rodriguez playing Michelle Rodriguez.  There's a wizard who isn't very good at being a wizard (how deeply novel).  And a horn-headed fawn-thing that can change into anything unless she forgets she can do that so the story will happen.  And, for a minute, that handsome guy from that one show about Jane Austen-style bangin' shows up playing a Paladin, which is not really explained in the movie, but I remember enough about latter-80's D&D to know what I was looking at.

The story is boilerplate stuff intended to give our heroes something to do, but really to just let you soak in their kinda generic fantasy world so we get a sequel.  There's an evil witch hiding behind con-man Hugh Grant, who is frankly the best part of the movie.  The witch is up to no good, and has put Hugh Grant into a position running a city-state, so she can....  it doesn't matter.  She's basically a sith.

Pine has a back story as a sort of Quaker-vigilante who saw his wife die and in the wake of that, became a thief.  So, this party is made up of people who are kinda thieves, thus the title.  Oh, and they have to get into a castle and... magic magic magic plus a daughter. 

I would never say the game of Dungeons and Dragons doesn't lean heavily on magic, but it feels like 80% of this movie was about magic, so much so that nothing makes sense and nothing matters from moment to moment.  Can't do a thing?  Magic.  Need to do something else?  Magic. What's the movie's big, existential threat?  Magic.  Caused by magic.

Because the movie knows this isn't great, Pine is basically the inner-monologue of the audience, constantly pointing out that everything is absurd.  Which, by the time you hit the 200th such quip, maybe this is all a little exhausting.  

Like I say, the movie does not want to be other, well-known properties, but it also doesn't really try to do much with the resources available and the only time we see something as classic as an Owlbear in the movie, it's our-shape-shifting friend.  No Beholders.  We briefly get a gelatinous cube, so that's good.

But the movie is incredibly short on either dungeons or dragons.  There is one scene with *both*, plus a magic sword so we see one of those, but it's a side-quest that barely impacts the plot, really, but eats up time.  And the dragon is fat for some reason?  

My assumption is that the script was done and some producer was like "so, neat.   Where is the dungeon and where is the dragon?" and the writer/ directors panicked, but they had this scene to them by 10:00 AM the next day.

I didn't *hate* this movie, I just didn't like it.  It's fine, but it's not my thing.  It just felt like - you've got this whole world to play with, and this is what you did?  

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