Dungeons & Dragons – “This is no game”

Last week, I talked about dragons. This week, I’m adding dungeons to the mix. That’s right – I’m discussing Dungeons & Dragons.

Dungeons & Dragons is, in many ways, a combination of all fantasy movie clichés rolled into one great big ball of “what the hell?”. Queen Amidala is trying to bring peace and order to the planet Naboo, but the Trade Federation, spurred on by Senator Palpatine’s manipulations of the Imperial Senate, moves to forcibly overthrow her rule.

Left – Queen Amidala; right – Senator Palpatine

…Wait a minute… That’s not right…

Dang. You know what? I was thinking of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I’m not sure why I’d do that, except that THEY’RE EXACTLY THE SAME MOVIE. Dungeons & Dragons tells the story of Ridley Freeborn (Justin Whalin, Dorm Daze 2; Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) and his sidekick Snails (Marlon Wayans, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra; Scary Movie), two unassuming thieves who get dragged into a political storm when Profion (Jeremy Irons, The Borgias; The Lion King) pits the advisors of the kingdom against Empress Savina (Thora Birch, American Beauty; Patriot Games) in an attempt to gain ultimate power for himself.

Top left – Ridley; top right – Snails; bottom left – Empress Savina; bottom right – Profion

The parallels between the movies certainly don’t stop there. Profion has his own trusted lieutenant in Damodar (Bruce Payne, Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God; Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire), an unmistakable mirror of Darth Maul (though decidedly less awesome than the Darth). At one point, it is explained that elves “are part of magic, as are all living creatures”, sounding suspiciously like the ephemeral Force. There’s even a fight scene at the end of the movie featuring lightsabers… I mean swords. Glowy swords. A red glowy sword and a blue glowy sword. Let’s face it, THEY’RE THE SAME FRICKIN’ MOVIE!

Left – Darth Maul; right – Damodar. No, wait – left is Darth Dam, right is Maulodar. No, that’s not right either…


This sword fighting scene is entirely original in every way ever

So what else do we find? For a start, there’s the perpetuation of the sexy librarian trope. Marina Pretensa (Zoe McLellan, Dirty Sexy Money; JAG) starts out the movie as one of the privileged mages, a student in the magic school. When we first see her, she is assisting her mentor in the school’s library, hair all done up in a bun, complete with nerdy-looking glasses (think Evelyn Carnahan, Rachel Weisz’s character in The Mummy, at the beginning of the movie, before all the adventures). As the movie progresses, she loses her glasses (but somehow doesn’t seem to notice or care), her hair becomes disheveled, and her overall look becomes more and more relatable and less arrogant and aloof. Because clearly, she was just waiting for an excuse to leave behind the shy and useless girl she was and start showing the… still timid and useless woman she becomes. Rarely does a movie have a female lead that is quite as useless during movie events as this one. She manages to save Ridley once, despite being a mage, compared with the three times she gets captured and needs rescuing.

Marina; note the change in appearance as the movie goes on (earliest at top left, latest at bottom)

Then there’s the portrayal of evil in this movie. Dungeons and Dragons (the game) is not necessarily known for subtlety (more on that below), but this movie, to my mind, goes so far trying to depict evil that the villains leave behind all (or most) of their sinisterness and enter the realm of laughable caricatures. Profion is the quintessential mad scientist of the fantasy world, spending the entire movie (minus his scenes in front of the advisors) with a wild, manic look on his face, yelling at everyone and planning to either conquer the world or destroy it. Meanwhile, Damodar is given the opposite cliché, being soft-spoken and deliberate in everything he says, clearly dictating and enunciating every. Last. Word. He also wears armor that screams menace, has a shaved head (in movies, rarely a sign of a friendly man), abstains from facial expressions of any sort other than pain, and for some reason, spends the whole movie with blue lips.

He’s also got these things in his head. Eeugh!

A perfectly sane and rational expression

Finally, there’s the trope of the antihero with a heart of gold. Ridley presents himself as a thief out for no one but himself (and Snails, of course), but as soon as he’s faced with the consequences of failing to help Marina and the Empress, he betrays that nature, stopping at nothing to make sure Marina stays safe and Profion’s plans get thwarted. And of course, he has a special destiny about which he’s unaware, because what hero doesn’t these days?

“Now, should I use this to get rich or to get laid?… Why not both?!”

On to the standards. The CGI was above average, though it definitely missed once or twice. Considering that this is not a SyFy Channel movie, the CGI was at least as good as expected. Sadly, despite involving a number of well-known actors (besides those mentioned, it also has Lee Arenberg, of Once Upon a Time and Pirates of the Caribbean et al fame), the acting was not this movie’s strong point. The writing was passable but nothing special (though it was refreshing to see overall decent line delivery for a change). The music was suitably epic, but again, nothing remarkable. Overall, this was somewhat better than most movies I review (as expected) but definitely worse than the vast majority of medium-budget studio releases.

A miss and a sort-of hit, plus the best the CGI gets with those ear things. Eeugh!

Lee Arenberg as Elwood Gutworthy, wondering why he’s in this thing

So what did this movie do well?

As many of you know, I am a huge nerd and an enormous geek (if you didn’t know that, just read… well, pretty much any of my blog entries). Dungeons and Dragons (the game) holds a special place in my heart, including some very good memories from my childhood. I know that the stereotype of D&D is socially awkward teenage boys sitting around in a basement rolling dice, and while that stereotype is not without basis (to be fair, we often used the dining room table), D&D in its best incarnation is so much more than that. I find it interesting that, in our society, gamers (of all stripes) are often derided as living in a fantasy world (and yes, this is much less true today than it was, say, ten or twelve years ago, but even today some of my good friends have difficulty understanding why I play computer games), while authors are celebrated, at least nominally. I’m not trying to imply, of course, that writers don’t deserve appreciation and recognition, as I’ve tried writing stories from time to time, and it is nothing resembling easy. However, the point I want to make here is that D&D, in its best interpretation, is a form of collaborative storytelling. All the players, both character players and dungeon master (the person who provides the setting and obstacles to be overcome), work together to create and develop a world that can be as rich and detailed and interesting as any best-selling novel. The main difference is that the story in D&D is written by several people, not just one.

“Several people, you say? Tell me more!”

The point of all this is that, to my mind, the Dungeons & Dragons movie captured this feeling very well, although certainly not perfectly. But the characters in the movie made meaningful choices that affected the outcome of the overall plot in significant ways, which is just as it should be in a good D&D game. The writers had a certain lack of imagination, of course (Ridley and Co. are trying to find the Scepter of Red Dragon Control, which involves bringing the Eye of the Dragon to the Temple of the Dragon, for instance), but having been in the position of creating a D&D adventure, I’m willing to forgive them for it, given the justice they did to the spirit of the game. So while the technical aspects left quite a bit to be desired, the essence of the movie was definitely well-conceived and interpreted.

So, I guess one of these controls dragons, and the other helps them see? Or maybe fits inside them? And there’s a temple somewhere?…

Finally, since this is Jumping Sharks, and I do try to make a point of looking at science stuff, I will bring up the one science thing I noticed. At the beginning of the movie, Profion is trying to create his own dragon-controlling scepter, but fails, resulting in him killing the dragon he had hoped to control. When its blood reaches a pool of nearby water, the water ignites, lighting up the entire river in the city. Ridley notices this, and asks Snails when was the last time he saw a river catch on fire. However, something that seems so impossible is actually not so! For instance, the Cuyahoga River, in Ohio, is probably best known for lighting on fire multiple times throughout history, most notably in 1969, a fire which resulted in passage of a multitude of clean water legislation, among other things. Additionally, some metals are so reactive in their non-ionized state that simply by placing them in water, they ignite (I’m looking at you, Lithium and Sodium!). To be fair, the water itself is not burning, but rather certain materials in the water; however, the point is that flame on top of water is not impossible.

Once more, just ’cause. Eeugh!

So that’s that. Stayed tuned for the second Dungeons & Dragons movie later this week and remember – shark week is coming!

Posted on July 31, 2012, in B-movies, Movies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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