The essence of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is that players try constantly to win campaigns. After three failed attempts at adapting a proper D&D movie, fortune has favoured the bold as directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Franchise Daley rolled the dice to present their distinct take on the beloved, highly-popular fantasy tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG).
With Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, the duo scores a natural 20 in the form of a jovial, fun adventure that outpaces its missteps to honour the spirit of its source material, plays to long time fans while winning over new audiences, and sets up an optimistic future for the franchise on the big screen.
It should be noted that this isn’t the perfect live-action D&D movie, and there likely won’t be one for a long while to come simply because well, the almost 40-year game series has inspired so many types of players across different play styles. Between the rich worldbuilding, deep character lore, and the ever-changing circumstances of the questing journey, there’s a lot to juggle and consider for the execution of an adaptation. What Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves does is to embrace the fun chaos and oftentimes silliness of a game campaign, instead of aiming to be a serious medieval epic like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones.
And the risk has paid off rather handsomely. Because Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves doesn’t delve into convoluted, dense worldbuilding details, it’s very accessible to newcomers who don’t know anything about the TTRPG. Hardcore enthusiasts may be disappointed by this lack of exposition, but when you have to take mainstream taste into account, something’s got to give – and it can’t be the Easter eggs and in-jokes, because what would a D&D movie be without those? There are plenty of visual nods and game references to go around, from Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter to familiar enemies like intellect devourers, especially when it comes to the action climax.
This simplicity plays partially into the movie’s appeal, and it’s a difficult feat that Goldstein and Daley have executed with finesse. Even as it introduces the Forgotten Realms, a D&D setting unfamiliar to novices, the story paints a very straightforward picture. After breaking out of prison, Edgin (Chris Pine), a wisecracking bard, sets out to steal a treasure with his ride-or-die stoic and strong barbarian friend, Holga (Michelle Rodriguez).
The treacherous lord Forge (Hugh Grant) and evil sorceress Sophina (Daisy Head) stand in their way, however, prompting them to recruit two more members: the self-doubting, insecure sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith), and Doric (Sophia Lillis), a human-hating druid. Along the way, the rag-tag band of heroes gets sidetracked to embark on side quests, with the virtuous paladin Xenk (Regé-Jean Page) joining as a temporary ally. The world then gets saved, in classic hero-style fashion.
The formula is well-worn by now, and it’s one that leaves no room for story twists. The events of the movie, including the ending, unravel exactly how one would expect, but Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves somehow still retains a sense of sincere charm that translates into authenticity, rather than a half-hearted cash-grab attempt. Like the actual TTRPG, the destination doesn’t quite matter as much as the journey here, and viewers are just taken along for the ride – impromptu detours, rising tensions, fighting action, and all.
Driving this earnestness is the electric on-screen chemistry between the core cast, and their portrayals of the colourful characters. Leaning heavily into the found family trope, the film adaptation is a celebration of the D&D spirit, where the heroes – all society misfits, outcasts, and self-perceived failures, or a mix of the three – find acceptance and belonging in a community. Pine and Rodriguez delight as a mismatched brain-and-brawn best friend duo, exchanging light jabs and mock insults with each other, but demonstrating loyalty when the situation calls for it. Smith is convincing and endearing in his struggles to work through vulnerability and uncertainty, while Page turns up the charm with an accurate demonstration of what a straight-laced, uptight paladin without a sense of humour or an understanding of everyday lexicon would look and act like.
While Lillis’ role doesn’t leave much room for development, she does get some time to shine, particularly during the shapeshifting scenes. The same lively and robust performances extend to the antagonists, with Grant embracing his smarmy, infuriatingly charismatic onscreen persona, and Head oozing a healthy dose of menace. As a whole, the cast is more than capable of holding their own, and each actor has been cast to their strengths, even if not all of them share equal screen time, as is always the case with an ensemble cast.
Since much of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves revolves around the crew and their shenanigans, it’s during these times that it also stumbles. Alas, the 139-minute runtime proves a little too long to sustain the genuine humour, causing jokes, character quips, and (respectful) roasts of dungeon masters to overstay their welcome at certain points. In contrast to some of its best moments, including one where the party visits a graveyard and talks to the dead, they are a little jarring, and make for some tonal inconsistencies.
The slightly bloated runtime introduces slight pacing issues to the second act of the movie as well, and revisits the character’s issues a little too often, such that they become repetitive. Delving into story specifics, there are occasions where things fall overly conveniently in place that seemingly defy D&D logic – without giving much away, a portal plays an important part at a certain point of the story, but one cannot help thinking if it’s sort sort of plot armour, as it remains open forever, with no repercussions or time limitations in place.
Visual effects is another department that could do with more refinement. While the CGI isn’t shoddy per se, it does look like it’ll age poorly over time, especially for the spell-casting and magic-battling sequences. The fantasy setting comes across as generic for a world supposedly rich in design variety, though other elements, such as the creatures and Doric’s transformations, are rendered decently enough.
With practical effects and natural landscapes, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is transformed into a more enthralling visual affair. It’s no Lord of the Rings, but the lush fields, vast plains, and luscious treetop villages make for a beautiful sight, while the detailed costume work and realistic makeup bring the likes of zombies and human-animal hybrids to life.
Through it all, the movie manages to stick to the ending. Despite the comedic, soft-hitting approach, it doesn’t shy away from packing a punch during its emotional highs, adding a human, more serious core to its jovial presentation. There’s room for Goldstein and Daley to refine their craft, but there’s also plenty to honour here, from its unexpected charm and accessibility to its celebration of the D&D spirit. Contrary to Simon’s exclamation of ‘why does nothing go our way?’ in the movie (which, by the way, is a very accurate description of D&D campaigns), Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is a study in how an adaptation can find its way when it unabashedly revels in its own ridiculousness.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
A love letter to the widely-loved TTRPG, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is a fun, enjoyable jaunt for both newcomers and fans that stumbles a little while delivering its charm, but picks the pace back up in time to establish a strong start for the franchise’s future on the silver screen.
Story - 7.5/10
Direction - 7.5/10
Characterisation - 8.5/10
Geek Satisfaction - 9/10