|Dungeons & Dragons|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 22 May 2001|
Mages and thieves taking center stage here (warriors are present but secondary and clerics don’t register). The main characters are human, but elves, dwarves and (per the title) dragons figure significantly in the action. The plot follows the efforts of a ragtag band led by young burglar Ridley (Justin Whalin) to obtain a wand that controls an entire breed of dragons, before evil magician Profion (Jeremy Irons) can get his hands on the device and enslave the whole kingdom.
Idiosyncratic individualists like Neil Jordan and Peter Jackson have made some incredibly, dreamlike fantasies outside the studio system (although both now happily toil within it – Jackson is currently laboring on uber-project "Lord of the Rings" for New Line, the company releasing "Dungeons"). However, when epic-scope fairytales that call for the creation of whole new worlds are made by first-timers on a limited budget, the results can often be scary. Credit first-time director Courtney Solomon with having fully thought out the look of sets and effects. Technically, his film is commendably accomplished. Many of his establishing shots look uncannily like handsome book illustrations, full of color and imaginative life. The structures (many of them actual buildings in Prague) are impressive, and the mazes that the characters must navigate are truly clever. When Ridley has to make his way through a perilous labyrinth in Chapter 8, the sequence evokes the opening of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" as shrewd, lively homage rather than pallid rip-off.
Furthermore, the dragons look fantastic. The script by Topper Lilien & Carroll Cartwright builds to an inevitable aerial dogfight between two different tribes of dragons in Chapters 17 and 18, and the CGI is just about all it could be. The story is decently laid out, introducing a lot of information in easy-to-follow installments while ensuring that action of one form or another is either occurring or just around the next bend.
Characterizations are something else again. If the dialogue and performances measured up to the effects and production design, "Dungeons & Dragons" would qualify as compelling. However, the humor fluctuates between being reasonably amusing and falling utterly flat, while genuine emotion is out of reach. Part of this is due to a curious decision to describe rather than show several key plot points. At least one of these can be partially explained by watching the director’s commentary on the alternate ending (found in the deleted scenes menu), but the finale still plays as bizarre even when it’s clear that it’s the result of a post-production choice.
Whalin is acceptable as the earnest young hero and Richard O’Brien (writer and Riff-Raff of "Rocky Horror Picture Show") contributes a sly turn as the head of the thieves’ guild. Bruce Payne is enjoyably evil as the secondary baddie in charge of capturing the rebels. Unfortunately, some of the other performers border on being wooden. On the other side of the equation, there’s Iron’s, who doesn’t let little things like a screenful of howling CGI dragons upstage him. It’s one thing to be broad and campy, but Irons is too much for even the large space provided by the "Dungeons & Dragons" canvas.
The DVD sound is slightly disappointing compared to the theatrical release version, although this may be the fault of either this reviewer’s equipment or the room configuration. In the theatre, the Chapter 1 stomping and bellowing of a massive dragon shook theatre seats with mighty footfalls, drawing us right into the world of the story. Either the bass on the DVD is not calibrated correctly or else the home sound system isn’t strong enough to handle it, because the impact bottoms out with far too much vibration. Other sound effects are much better, with dimensional puffs of flame extending into the room in Chapter 8, wonderful directional arrow impacts and the clatter of falling objects in the rears in Chapter 9 and splendid moving-air noises as dragons flap and swoosh through the air in Chapters 17 and 18. The center channel mostly presents the dialogue with clarity, although there are one or two places (notably in Chapter 9) where there’s a detectable dip in the level.
The DVD comes with two different filmmaker audio commentary tracks and a pair of featurettes. One is a making-of, enlivened by enthusiastic discussion of effects and stunts – one appreciates Whalin’s performance more after hearing about his real adventures while filming the maze sequence. However, the one that will endear itself to viewers sympathetic to D&D is the "Let the Games Begin" history of the role-playing leisure pursuit. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax, filmmaker Solomon, star Whalin and New Line executive Mark Ordesky all rapturously chronicle their own personal experiences with and love of D&D, fearless about sounding totally fannish. It’s a loopy and adorable footnote to the main feature.
"Dungeons & Dragons" isn’t resonant enough to work its way deeply into many hearts, but as an effects extravaganza with a plot that’s true to its gaming roots, it’s definitely a good time.