Director/Writer Courtney Solomon saw Star Wars: The Phantom Menace one too many times.
Besides laser blasters and spaceships, there are quite a few similarities between it and his debut movie Dungeons & Dragons. For those born yesterday, D&D is probably the most popular role playing game ever. It also has survived a spat of social outcry regarding its addictiveness. Solomon’s film is here to set the record straight. Unfortunately, producing the ultimate tribute to his beloved game was more of a story itself than D&D actually is. As it turns out, Solomon by shear determination spent over ten years making his voice heard in and out of Hollywood until some suit finally listened. You’d think that much time would reap better results.
For starters, the plot centers around some muddy politics. Empress Savina (Thora Birch) is intent on bringing a rather twentieth century brand of anachronistic democracy to a decidedly Dark Ages caste system of feudal lords, mages, dwarfs, trolls, and thieves. She believes that everyone should have a voice in government and that war benefits no one. Yet one wonders how she got to her throne in the first place.
This particularly soft take on the fantasy really surprised me. With such a varied background of people groups and political intrigue, I was a little disappointed that Solomon chose to dumb down the subject matter for his modern audience. On one hand he’s done an admirable job with props, costumes, and set design to recreate an Olde English fantasy universe worthy of a D&D fanatic. But give us some credit, Solomon. We get enough political correctness in the news.
Leading the commoners’ revolt is Ridley (Justin Whalin) and Snails (Marlon Wayans). Whalin is at times insufferably smarmy, but a solid hero. Wayans though is just painful to watch. He plays the dutiful role of slapstick sidekick, ala Jar Jar Binks, but given nothing to do but provide comic relief. It’s embarrassing to see him pay this kind of racial pittance. It’s a good thing the Wayans brothers (how many are there anyway?) have no shame.
Then we have Empress Savina who is certainly no Queen Amadala. Something struck me while watching Birch: her voice inflections change but her face never breaks that stubborn stoicism. It makes me wonder if her role in American Beauty was a fluke or, at the very least, being in the right place at the right time.
Quite her opposite, the magnetic Zoe McLellan plays the mage Marina, an apprentice to a powerful wizard. As Profion (Jeremy Irons paying the bills) grapples for power from the empress, Marina comes to the aid of Ridley and Snails. Joining their little band is a dwarf named Elwood and an elf named Norda (Kristen Wilson) who looks every bit like Commander Tuvok’s twin Vulcan sister. One of the more magnetic characters is Profion’s lead henchmen Damodar (Bruce Payne). He’s not exactly a limber Darth Maul, but he’s just as menacing and British.
Central to their fight against power-hungry Profion is an understanding of magic and dragons. For whatever reason dragons are a nexus for magic. Not a D&D player, I don’t have a whole lot of context here. Still, I was hoping a movie like this would bridge that gap for the non-initiated. For all I know, dragons just look cool and breath fire. Or maybe that’s the point. It’s just a game, right?
With so many characters to develop in two hours, more than a few get left by the wayside with not much to do but resemble action figures in an elaborate life-sized game. By the final act, D&D is merely a solo hero movie with his trusty sidekicks either dropping dead or being captured. To beat the game, Ridley has to win the girl, slay the dragons, and kill the evil boss pretty much on his own. At least Solomon spares us a Gungan disco celebration in the end. Now that’s worth celebrating.