It is at once perfectly logical and utterly absurd to believe that there’s a movie to be made from Dungeons & Dragons, the role-playing game co-created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in the nineteen-seventies. Fundamentally, there is no story to adapt. Instead, there’s an essentially endless set of narrative possibilities to be conjured up from decades of encyclopedic world building. The source material offers concepts more than constructs. Filmmakers almost have to start from a blank sheet of gridded paper to make something. By now, the tropes forged by the likes of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings features and HBO’s Game of Thrones and its Xerox copies are arguably more useful than anything found on a randomly selected page of a Dungeon Master’s Guide.
I believe the surprising effectiveness of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, the stab at franchise launching co-directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, can be attributed to the filmmakers understanding all of the above. The film’s screenplay, co-credited to the directors and Michael Gilio, is structured around familiar dilemmas in some ways. There’s a band of mismatched cohorts who come together on a quest to thwart an charismatically villainous ruler. As the title implies, there are dragon. There are also magic staffs and swinging swords, sterling heroes and snappy sidekicks. At times, it seems like the whole bag of tricks made available by the game is emptied onto the screen to be shuffled around by players with rambunctious imaginations.
As they did with their prior feature, the messy but winning Game Night, Daley and Goldstein demonstrate a real adeptness for balancing action and comedy. And they clearly understand the value in giving the cast the space to carry the film with the sheer force of their performing personalities. Sure, as the main antagonist, Hugh Grant is visibly disinterested in everything he’s asked to do, but everyone else is game. Chris Pine, Justice Smith, and Sophia Lillis each claim at least one sprightly, distinctive moment, and Regé-Jean Page is a scene stealer as a paladin who is briefly employed to help with the quest. Or maybe participates in a side quest. It’s hard to pin it down exactly.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves might have the heft of a wispy mist, but it’s an effective, eager entertainment. In a way that other branded screen endeavors should emulate, the film is affectionate towards its inspirations without being slavish to them. It would have been easy — and understandable, to be honest — for the filmmakers to protect themselves with a border or meta-informed irony. They don’t cave, though. They’re earnest rather than opportunistic. In modern movies, that qualifies as at least neutral good.