At the end of this month, one of the most charming surprises to hit cinemas this Spring will be making its debut with Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. Now, it’s a hard thing to adapt a role-playing game with passionate but somewhat niche audience. How do you satisfy fans and players while appealing to mainstream audiences who have never played the game? Well we at The Nerds of Color would love to offer opinions that represent both perspectives: a player’s perspective, and a non-player’s perspective. This review will be from someone who has played before.
Full transparency, I’d never consider myself to be an expert in Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t know every spell or every beast and creature by heart like many others. But I have played a campaign or two. I do have a character. I do get invested in our storylines. And I’ve watched my share of Critical Role episodes. Unlike lifelong players, I’ve only been playing since the pandemic. But it’s been a really fun and rewarding experience, that has really allowed me to appreciate the craftsmanship behind writer/directors Jonathan Francis Daily and Jonathan Goldstein’s love letter to the game they love so much.
This puts me at a bit of an advantage in terms of finding Easter eggs and inside-baseball references, versus the experience delivered to the non-playing audiences. Where the playing field is even, however, is in the love we share for this tale of adventure. In other words Daily and Goldstein have written and directed a movie that can be enjoyable regardless of whether or not someone has played the game. But those who have played it will get extra enjoyment in seeing some of their favorite creatures, spells, artifacts, and settings come to life.
The particular story the film centers on involves a band of thieves led by a bard named Edgin (Chris Pine) and a barbarian named Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), who are trying to find a way to get Ed’s daughter back from their former ally (now turned enemy) Forge (Hugh Grant) and his red wizard ally, Sofina. In order to infiltrate Forge’s castle, they recruit a party of willing allies, including medium-talent sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith), wild shaping druig, Doric (Sophia Lillis), and noble paladin, Xenc (Rege-Jean Page). Once they discover, however, that Forge and Sofina have more sinister plans for the city of Neverwinter, the rogues must band together to complete a noble quest to save everyone from their enemies’ evil plot!
Sure it’s not very complex storytelling. But it doesn’t have to be for the film to be enjoyable. And that’s what the greatest strength of Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is. Much like its characters, it’s simply likable to the core. It’s a typical “storm the castle, rescue the princess, save the city” story, similar to The Princess Bride or Shrek, but by way of Marvel Studios films like Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers. And that was the right way to approach a project like this: tongue in cheek, but sincere. It’s a light, breezy film about losers, who are aware they’re losers, but are persisting to do the right thing anyway in the name of both friendship and justice (and also some treasure). And while movies like that are a dime a dozen, the way Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves executes on the concept still feels fun and refreshing.
Let’s start with the comedy. I’m not sure what happened to audiences to make everyone so cynical, but it feels like these days, comedy is getting harder and harder to pull off with audiences that reject any joke in any film ever released, then get on Twitter to complain about it. Thankfully, Honor Among Thieves benefits from a sharp, witty script that hits its comedic beats more times than it misses (though I’m sure people will still complain). But I found it quite funny. The genuinely funny moments are only made so by the delivery of its cast and the execution of its directors and co-writers, Goldstein and Daily. It gives the film a very light touch, and I found myself laughing at so many aspects of it. Colloquialisms are slung as if these characters are being played by your friends. And characters make hilarious mistakes and observations as if people are genuinely rolling well or rolling poorly. It truly helps enhance the film by making it feel closer to the experience of playing.
For instance, in the game, you and your friends will have to roll different dice to achieve various ranges of numbers that impact the action your characters will or won’t take. So I can declare the action I want to take, and the dungeon master will ask me to roll a dice, and if I roll a certain number or higher, I’ll achieve my action. When I don’t, my character will totally botch the situation, and the events of the narrative will be impacted from there. More often than not, a terrible roll will lead to a hilarious moment, particularly when you’re out of combat. And with the characters on screen, making stupid mistakes, or achieving a bit of unexpected luck with longshot actions, the spirit of the game is absolutely retained, even if it’s done so fairly lightly. The comedic beats make it feel like this is a believable campaign where players are getting lucky or unlucky. And that experience really makes it enjoyable for people who have played before.
The same goes for the action. There are a lot of really terrific set pieces, as well as combat in the film heavily inspired by the films of Jackie Chan. Obviously this isn’t going to compete with John Wick: Chapter 4 or Shang-Chi or anything, but frankly, for a movie like this, the filmmakers didn’t have to go this hard! There are a lot of really excellent sequences. There’s a particularly well choreographed scene of Holga beating up a bunch of guards with her hands tied, another fight sequence with Xenk that’s really terrific, a really ￼exciting escape sequence involving Themberchaud, a husky red dragon, another scene of Holga fighting soldiers in a blacksmith forge, and the final battle with the group against the movie’s primary villain is also well shot, and exciting. I think in some ways, the action feels maybe a notch or two just under something you’d see in Kingsman. But that’s really not bad for an action-fantasy!
There’s even a really impressive one-take of Doric escaping the Neverwinter castle by wild shaping into several different characters during the chase. Goldstein and Daily got some practice with this during the hot-potato sequence from Game Night, but the scene here is a lot more elaborate, exciting, and incredibly well put together. Granted this is not the way Wild Shape works in the game (you can’t just Wild Shape into seven different creatures in one time), which some purists will take issue with. But visually within the movie, it’s really well done, adding to the enjoyability of the movie.
In addition to the humor and the action, the best part of the film really is the ensemble. Every character here gets a bit of a moment to shine. Pine is his charismatic self, but isn’t afraid to make a fool of himself for our entertainment or commitment to a joke. There’s a really hilarious moment where he has to act out a Major Illusion version of himself, and it ends up being one of the funniest damn things in the movie. Rodriguez is such an insanely fierce fighter in this movie, but she brings in so much heart as well, really acting as Ed’s conscience. Smith is hilarious as Simon. Grant is also in rare villainous comedic form, chewing the scenery of every moment he’s in. He looks like he’s having a blast.
And when it comes to the characters they’re playing, each and every single member of the party is given a sensible backstory and motivations. It definitely endears us to these characters because all of them have something going on that makes them multi-dimensional. In Ed’s case, he’s trying to work through the death of his wife, work through his own guilt for playing a role in that death, and work harder to become a better father. Holga is trying to prove to herself, her ex-husband, and the tribe that cast her out, that she is worthy of greatness and deserving of a true home. Simon is trying to gain a sense of self confidence to become a sorcerer worthy of his family’s bloodline. And Doric is simply trying to get justice for her people. These elements are so important for us to connect with this group of rogues, and that’s the absolute crucial reason why the moments with them work, from a comedic perspective, a stakes perspective, and an emotional perspective. It’s really reminiscent of players creating their own unique, complex histories and eventually sharing them with the entire party as the campaign progresses. There’s even a scene on a beach where they do this exact thing with one another (though they could have made this deeper for a few of the characters — more on that below).
However, the biggest scene stealer in the film is Page’s Xenk! Sadly only in the movie in a very limited capacity, the film makes the best use of his incredibly righteous, overly noble character, and Page’s terrific performance. It’s the movie’s biggest subversive moment, given he is playing a traditional knight in shining armor that serves as the complete antithesis of our heroes. The moments of pure heroism from the character are played up for laughs, and those stick the best in this movie. And everything within Page’s performance, from the way he walks to the way he carries himself, and the conviction he has when he delivers his completely serious dialogue lead to laugh out loud situations. It’s simply a shame we do not get enough of him.
But sadly, his is not the only character the movie tends to shortchange. While the whole party is great together, the one who does get the shortest end of the stick is Lilis’s Doric. Though Lilis, who is a terrific actress (as proven in IT and the underrated series I’m Not Okay With This), plays her with a sense of aloofness and mistrust in humans, the script doesn’t give her nearly enough depth or backstory for us to justify her actions. That’s not to say she isn’t a joy to watch on screen. The character has so many terrific moments. But I would have loved to have heard more about what motivates her character and more about her backstory, on par with everyone else’s. Her arc should have been better, and if they continue this franchise, it would be great to have the next film develop her a lot more.
The same can be said for Daisy Head’s Sofina. Sofina plays a critical role (no pun intended) in the movie, but she’s unfortunately a very one-note villain. She essentially is reduced to pointing, screaming, or snarling at the camera. There’s not much to her character, which is, in some ways, one of the few drawbacks to the movie being essentially modeled after a Marvel Studios movie. I know parts of her character are meant to set up future sequels for a potentially larger story. And it’s clear what her motivations are. But they’re just not interesting.
From a technical standpoint, I will give credit to Honor Among Thieves for committing to the use of practical effects most of the time. The moments where the movie goes CG aren’t always the best, but when it uses real makeup and even puppetry to tell its story, it harkens back to movies like Jim Henson’s Labyrinth and Dark Crystal. And to me, those are preferred titles to base your movie’s look and feel on versus the average $200M CG fest today. It gives the movie a certain charm, and contributes to the in-world feel of the lore they’re basing everything on.
Which, speaking of, I think fans will both get a kick out of but might potentially also get annoyed with. Naturally when you’re playing a game versus watching a movie, not all of the rules and mythology can be followed to a T. Heck even comic book movies aren’t always accurate. For instance, in one scene, Mage Hand is depicted in combat, but it’s not actually an active attack spell. And, as seen in the trailers, Druids like Doric can’t actually Wild Shape into Owl Bears. That said though, Daily and Goldstein still try their best to pull in fun Easter eggs for the hardcores to enjoy, from the types of species they introduce, to recognizable locations like The Underdark and Revel’s End, monsters like Mimics, Displacer Beasts, Gelatinous Cubes, as well as mentions of legendary antagonists from the lore like Szass Tam. We even get to see visual depictions of what it looks like to attune to an artifact, and cast spells like Shield and Maximilian’s Earthen Grasp. There’s even a nod to the pseudo-popular 80s cartoon show. It’s fun to see these things come to life, even if they’re not 100% accurate to the descriptions in the 5E handbook. The result is a world that’s as vast on film as it is within our collective imaginations and the game maps.
Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is definitely one of the most fun experiences I’ve had at the movies this year. Part of that may be coming from the fact that, as a player, it’s fun to see the aspects of the game come to life, the same way we see comic book elements brought to life in a Marvel Studios film. But like a Marvel Studios film, the movie is still a light, breezy, enjoyable good time with terrific action, comedy, and performances. The characters in the film are as endearing as the world Goldstein and Daily visually brought to life. And overall, I think the duo actually managed to accomplish the very difficult task of creating a mainstream movie that’s just as much fun and accessible for mainstream audiences as it is for players. It doesn’t quite roll a nat 20, but it’s still a pretty good surprise hit!
Overall Score: B+
Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is holding Amazon Prime showings today at 2pm local time, as well as early showings on the 26 and 29, before opening wide on March 31!