Monday, May 29, 2006

A Second D&D Movie?!?

Yes, they made a sequel.

Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God

They, in this case, refers to Studio Hamburg Worldwide Pictures. I’d heard that the original D&D movie had done pretty well in Europe, and I guess this proves it. Thanks to Warner Bros. you can find the new D&D movie in your video store. It’s been out for a few months now, apparently, but I only just recently stumbled across it.

So how is it? Not too bad. Not great. It’s nowhere near the goodness that is Peter Jackson’s LotR movies. It’s not quite in the league of those great 80’s fantasy flicks, like “Willow” or “Labyrinth”. It doesn’t have the epic feel of “The Dark Crystal” or “Excalibur”, or the depth of story or quality of acting in “Ladyhawke” nor the eye candy and cool action vibe of either of the Conan flicks.

But, and this is a huge but, it’s much, much better than the first one. First, and most noticeable, it’s immediately obvious that the people who made this movie have actually, you know, flipped through a copy of the Player’s Handbook. Characters in the movie are referred to as rogues and barbarians, and fill those roles just as you’d expect in the game. The barbarian babe growls a lot and whacks people with a sword. The priest worships Obad-Hai and offers a short prayer before knocking down a tree to build a raft. One of the better scenes in the movie involves the rogue finding a secret compartment beneath a pile of furs used as bedding and disarming the trap that guards it. I mean, can you get more old-school than that?

Actually, the rogue has some of the best lines and scenes in the movie. You’ll know what’s going on as soon as his introduction begins, but it’s still fun. He avoids the stereotype of the wimpy or childish halfling rogue by coming across as a seasoned and at times vicious campaigner with no patience for whining. His interplay with the barbarian is amusing. And those of us who have been involved with D&D for a while will appreciate when he asks what horrors drove the barbarian’s brother mad during his expedition to the Barrier Peaks.

In spite of a few references to old school adventures (we called ‘em “modules” in my day), the look and feel is definitely 3rd edition. There are not quite enough buckles and spikes to get the full dungeonpunk look, but the monsters bear more than a passing resemblance to illustrations from the latest Monster Manual. The cleric carries one of those weird, fat lightning-bolt looking shields very popular in 3rd edition art as well. Odd tattoos abound, and there’s not a pointy hat to be found on the head of any wizard in the movie.

It’s clear they didn’t have as much money to spend on this one as they had on the previous movie. There’s a strong “Xena” vibe in the costuming of the extras and the quality of the special effects. I didn’t recognize the names of any of the actors this time through, other than Bruce Payne, who reprises the role of Damodar. That might have more to do with my ignorance of current Hollywood stables than anything else, but the fact that the cover of the CD case doesn’t have somebody’s face splashed up big and bold across it is, I think, rather telling.

(By the way, if you don’t remember who Damodar is from the first movie, but don’t want to endure the agony of actually watching it again, swing by the review at Wulf’s Pit of Sword and Sorcery Cinema for a quick, and funny, reminder. Warning: link not work safe!!!)

In spite of all of this, the movie isn’t great, and I’m afraid that most of the blame must be laid at the feet of the writers. The acting is a bit iffy in spots, and cutting the scene where our heroes find their magic sword really makes no sense, but these are minor issues. The writers really did try to give us a good D&D movie. Their work with the tropes of the game go beyond using the character classes. There’s a short dungeon delve involving classic D&D puzzles like spelling out the secret word by pushing the letters on an inscription, or navigating a trapped hallway by stepping on the right floor tiles. They don’t burden the story with an unnecessary budding romance and they’re not afraid to have characters die and stay dead. The threat to the kingdom and to the individual characters feels real. If the story had delivered a climactic ending, I’d probably be raving about it. Instead, the final act slowly dribbles away. We don’t even get a clich├ęd and overdone swordfight between our heroes and the villain Damodar. Instead, there’s a brief chase, and the villain surrenders without putting up any fight at all. Lacking human conflict and catharsis, the final triumphant clash of good-guy special effects versus bad-guy special effects is rather hollow. In the end, it feels a bit like when your players do such a great job planning their final fight with the big boss that he goes down in a single round, leaving the final moments of your carefully planned adventure feeling flat and anti-climactic.

Among the extras on the CD is an interview with G. Gygax that is, in a word, painful. Lots of cuts and hopping around, yielding sound bites rather than an actual interview. What we are left with sounds like blatant shilling for the movie, talking about how the different characters fit their roles well and how the movie is true to the ideals of D&D.

If you’re not a fan of D&D, I can’t recommend you see the movie. If you are, and can spread the cost of the rental among the rest of your group, sure, why not? It’s a fun way to kill a few hours, and might serve well to relieve the agony if you’re doing a bad fantasy movie night, sandwiched between “The Sword and the Sorceress” and one of the “Deathstalker” movies.

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