02 July 2015

RPGs at the movies: Dungeons and Dragons on screen

They made a movie out of this? WTF?

A new Dungeons and Dragons film will be coming to theaters... someday. In the midst of a movie licensing mania for Hasbro (owners of Wizards of the Coast and Parker Brothers) that has brought us the board game to motion picture Battleship, the horror film based on Ouija, the soon to be made Monopoly movie, and the future adaptation of Risk???

In order to be a success to Hasbro, D&D revenues need to be very high, much higher than other competitors. If they do not make enough management will demote it to a lesser property and there goes the high quality we expect. Already Wizards is disadvantaged as none of the money generated from video games counts towards D&D's annual gross. A movie would be a big influx of cash, and is part of the plan for the game.

However, licensing issues are hampering development. Back in 2000, Warner Brothers released a movie called Dungeons and Dragons to universal failure. There have been two made for TV sequels. Courtney Solomon, who produced the trio of films, says he still has the rights to make another film. Hasbro disagrees, saying that Solomon's deal ran out because TV movies did not count as sequels as they had no theatrical release. Solomon disagrees, saying his contract just specifies sequels with no mention of the need for them to be theatrical. Hasbro says that in the film industry it is understood that theatrical film sequels are theatrical releases. As yet, almost a year after the trial, I still cannot find if this has been settled.

Hasbro wants the rights back to sell it for big money to Universal Pictures who wants to do a multi-picture project, while Warner Bros. is looking to revive the franchise and bring it back to the theaters. Solomon's Sweetpea Entertainment bought the film rights for cheap back in the 90s when TSR was in financial straights and was desperate for any money they could grab, and Warner Bros. bought Sweetpea.

Time will tell who wins this. In the end, will movie goer's win? The three movies so far have not been the big hits everyone wanted, so this next movie will hopefully buck the trend.

UPDATE! The lawsuit is settled. Movie on the way. See my post about it.


Dungeons and Dragons (2000)
This is no game? This is no good!

Dungeons and Dragons (2000) was a failure. The story of two rouges (Justin Whalin and Marlon Wayans) who are thrust into a plot to stop an arch-mage Profion (Jeremy Irons) from overacting using a macguffin to control dragons and take over the kingdom. Along the way they team up with an apprentice wizard (Zoe McLellan) and the most stereotypical D&D dwarf you will ever see (Lee Arenberg). They face off against Profion's henchman Damodar (Bruce Payne). Later, a ranger (Kristen Wilson) joins the group for no other reason than to say to fanboys "look, a ranger!" Finally someone dies, the bad guy gets the macguffin, and the heroes save the day while a bunch of poorly rendered CGI dragons fight each other (ror even worse CGI, watch the first scene where the dragon is killed, it is as bad as CGI could be).

A movie starts on the page, they say. The script has poorly written characters, especially the bad guys who are so cookie cutter. Throw in some cringe-worthy "for the fanboys" dialog, such as calling the wizard a "low level mage," and you have a disaster. The writer failed to understand what a D&D movie should be (see below for some of my ideas on what a D&D movie should be). 

Also, where are the clerics. Everyone is amazed when Tom Baker (the former Doctor Who star) has a cameo as an elf who can heal, and everyone is so amazed he can heal. In D&D healing is everywhere, heck you can buy it in bottles.

Acting is bad all around (a sign of poor direction by Courtney Soloman because I have seen some of these actors do better), though Justin Whalin tries hard with what he has to work with. Jeremy Irons seems to know the movie is bad and decides to make the most over the top performance of his career because of it. Irons is a terrific subtle actor, so you cannot help but laugh with him in the final scenes as he chews the scenery on purpose. The worst of the worst acting comes from Thora Birch as the Empress. She sleepwalks through every scene  When you get her lameness and Irons' overacting in the same scene, it just makes both look more extreme. Contrast this with her terrific and award winning performance in American Beauty the same year. She is frankly un-watchable here. 

If you have not seen this film, even if you are the most die hard D&D or fantasy fan, do not bother. If you like to laugh at cheesy B-movies though, at least you will get some chuckles from a viewing. Try drinking some grain alcohol first.*

Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God (2005)
Run away!

Five years on and the first direct to cable sequel hits our TVs. Surprisingly, this one is not bad. While not good enough to have been a successful theatrical release, being a TV movie we do not expect greatness, this movie turns out kind of fun. Just remember to lower your expectations a little.

The script is decent, except for having to shoe horn the villain Damodar (Bruce Payne) into this film, thus connecting it to the previous failure. Acting and directing are better. Though it is low budget you expect that from a TV movie, so no big deal. Acting is good all around in a party made of a fighter (Mark Dymond), elven wizard (Lucy Gaskill), barbarian (a kick ass woman played by Ellie Chidzey), a cleric (Steven Elder, who does not fare well against an ice dragon... ooops, spoilers), and a rogue (Tim Stern). They are all interesting characters who each have their moment to shine, and also have fun and interesting interactions with each other, especially the respect earned between the barbarian and rogue. 

Rounding out the cast is Clemency Burton-Hill (actress and a highly renowned political journalist in the United Kingdom). She is good as the wife of the fighter who gets infected by an evil magical sickness, and Roy Marsden brings some gravitas to the part of the leader of the Mage's Council. 

The writers got the roles right, letting them do iconic class functions while not making it too much of a fanboy wank time, which is a hard feat. There are a couple of shout outs for the fans, however, such as referencing an adventure into the Barrier Peaks, and the cleric worships the Greyhawk god Obad-Hai (two Greyhawk references? But this is Izmir, a made up world. Why not just make it in Greyhawk?). Also, magic items abound from a gem of true seeing and ring of the ram, among others.

In this one the heroes join up to stop Damodar from waking up a dragon and destroying Izmir. Why? Because he is angry at the people who did him wrong a century before who are all dead. I guess their kids could do. The gang battle illusions, decipher puzzles, disarm traps and have some well choreographed fights. I especially liked the surprise appearance of a lich. 

While nowhere Lord of the Rings good, there is not much to point out that is really bad. If you have 90 minutes, I say watch it. Its a far better TV movie than anything Lifetime shows.

Dungeons & Dragons: The Book of Vile Darkness (2012)
Even the poster sucks.

Short review: A thousand times worse than the first film.

Longer review: I will try and be polite here: The writing sucks, with a plot that does not hold together, a bunch of "heroes" that are very unlikable (even the lead character who is supposed to be a paladin or something), and the dialog is worse than most porn films. The direction (by Gerry Lively who did the previous better film) is inept, and the set design and costuming are atrocious. All the actors phone in performances (led by unknowns Jack Derges and Charlotte Hunter). The leads were supposed to be love interests, they had no chemistry at all, and the sex scene makes sex look boring. 

While it has a mind flayer at the end, which is too cool for school to put in a movie, I did not make it that far, stopping about two-thirds of the way through.  As for fanboy shout outs to D&D, I did not see any, but then again I did beat my head against a rock after seeing this thing to try and forget it. What a waste of time. Do not even consider watching. At least the first movie could be laughed at; this has no funny moments to make it on the level of even a B-movie. It was, as advertised, 90 minutes of vile darkness.

BTW: Did I mention it sucked? No redeeming qualities here, folks.


Whoever gets to make the next D&D film, here are a few hints:

Forget that it is a movie based on a game. License Forgotten Realms, and make a Forgotten Realms movie. Faerun is full of cultures and history that rivals Tolkien in its depths, and is the most popular campaign setting in role playing. Sure, D&D is a game but thinking of this as a "game movie" will poison the well. 

Drizzt. Yes!
Possibly base it around known characters in the Forgotten Realms story line. Imagine Drizzt Do'Urden and his big cat on the big screen. Film is all about characters and plot, and Drizzt has it in buckets.
Hire someone who has written for D&D novels to work on the screenplay. They know what makes a good D&D story. R.A. Salvatore would be excellent; he did write a pilot script for a Forgotten Realms television series, and his novels rock, and he also created Drizzt.

Have I mentioned Drizzt yet? No? Okay then: DRIZZT!!!

Finally, do not dumb it down to make room for more action. Watch Lord of the Rings again, there were many times there was no action, just character development, and audiences liked it. Put another way: fantasy does not mean "for kids."

Do this and I think we have a hit, though I doubt they will do it right.

* Kids, if you are underage DO NOT DRINK the grain alcohol. Leave it to college kids.

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