Mine eyes have seen the glory
of the umpteenth level priest
If you're evil and he turns you then you're instantly deceased
He's got wisdom twenty seven, it's been magically increased
And he goes marching on…
The receptionist at my office expressed surprise that Dungeons & Dragons could be turned into a movie at all. "After all," she said, "It’s only an old cartoon series."
Well, no, actually, not.
Before D&D was a cartoon, it was a game. Those critics who have heaped abuse on the movie also entirely missed this point. Dungeons & Dragons was, as the title proclaims, an attempt to capture the essence of fantasy role-playing on the screen; and it did this remarkably well.
The movie is set a generic, undifferentiated fantasy-never-never-land. It contains crowded markets, crowded bars, castles, a forest, and not much else. It’s the sort of place where things called "orcs" and things called "elves" meet in bars; where things called "halflings" are mentioned in passing and where there is an obligatory "dwarf" who starts fights and spills food on his beard. At one point we see an establishing shot of a city floating in the clouds, but nothing comes of this: it’s just another collection of taverns, markets and a thieves' guild. The non-humans don’t regard the elves or the orcs as remarkable, alien, or even foreign; when one of the characters spots an elf in the bar, he just tries to chat her up. All the archetypes are dragged out of Tolkien and Howard and made contemptible by decades of familiarity. This looks like Middle-earth, but it's actually New York, or, at the very best, Disneyland. Even the dragons are significant primarily as a kind of nuclear deterrent.
Total absence of sense of wonder; just like a D&D game. Check.
The two main characters, Ripley (or possibly Ridley) and Snails (no, really) are nominally thieves. Ridley is played by Jimmy Olsen out of the New Adventures of Superman, and Snails is the result of a terribly experiment in genetic engineering involving DNA from Eddie Murphy, Red Dwarf’s Cat, and Jar Jar Binks. I don’t know if you call his dialogue "rap" or "jive" or just "very, very irritating." I’m pretty sure I heard Ripley and Snails calling each other "dude"; and they definitely do that high-five thing with clenched fists. It is impossible not to think of them as Bill and Ted wandering around Middle-earth. The movie starts with them ineptly robbing the wizards’ guild. The funny black man is comically terrified, while the swashbuckling white man remains cool and confident, yet it is very clear that neither of them actually believe themselves to be in the slightest danger. They behave, get this, as if they are playing a game.
Then there is the matter of the plot, or rather scenario, or rather scenarios, because the script keeps changing its mind. Having been captured by a girly wizard while robbing the guild, Jimmy Olsen finds himself involved in a quest to find the Staff of Something-or-other, which confers on the wielder the power to control computer animated dragons. At the beginning of the film, the point of this is that the Evil Chief Wizard is going to take the staff of office (which also controls dragons) from the Good Empress, so we need a spare staff to protect ourselves from him. But at the half way point, up pops Tom Baker in a blonde wig and pointy ears and talks some guff about how wizard's USE magic, but elves ARE magic. The point of the quest is thus really to stop anybody using magic staffs of any sort because every time a dragon gets killed you upset the balance of the Force. (At this point some black elves in masks look at each other and then look at Ridley and say with sub titles "Does he understand his full potential?" No he doesn’t, and nor do we, but this is all right because the subject is not raised again.) One has the impression of a scriptwriter chucking a McGuffin at our hero and retrospectively working out some reason for it to be important.
The story about the Evil Wizard and the Good Empress is lifted wholesale from Phantom Menace. The Empress actually wears one of Amedelia’s cast-off costumes, until the end when she changes for no good reason into Mordred’s armour out of Excalibur. The scene in the Wizards Council Chamber (which looks like an Italian Opera house, actually rather cool) where Jeremy Irons as Profion, Chief Evil Wizard, asks the Empress to hand over her staff and she, speaking up for the rights of Commoners everywhere, says "That is something I cannot do" is almost frame-by-frame the Senate scene from Episode I. The end of the movie, which is completely over the top and almost worth the price of admission, has Ripley sword-fighting with Profion at the top of an absurdly narrow tower, while dragons of various types set fire to things and fall out of the sky. (It is one of the perils of computer animation that once you have rendered out one dragon, you can just as easily show 1,000 of the beasts; and therefore do so.) Profion suggests that Ripley should use the Staff of Something against him.
"No" shouts Ripley "NO. I’ll never turn into you. Never."
The possibility that Ripley/Ridely might in any way be in danger of turning into Profion has not even been mentioned up to this point. But still, we can at least be grateful that Profion resists the temptation to tell Ripley that he is his father. None of this makes the slightest sense in terms of the "plot" we just feel that the characters are re-enacting their favourite bits from the Star Wars trilogy because it felt like a fun thing to do.
I could also mention the complete lack of emotional depth. I saw the film with an audience which was clearly made up of D&D geeks. There was no heckling or popcorn rustling; everyone was in the cinema because they positively wanted to see the film. Otherwise, they’d have been next door watching Hannibal. When the trailer for Lord of the Rings came on, there was a sense of religious fervour. But even so. When Snails gets killed off -- sorry that’s a spoiler isn’t it, the cute annoying humorous black guy who's the hero's mate gets killed, there’s a turn up for the books -- the whole audience collapsed into laughter. I mean, the whole scene -- Snails falling from the battlements; Ripley or Ridely falling to his knees and shouting out "Noooo". One would have to have a heart of stone to read of the death of little Nell without laughing. Quite clearly neither we nor Ripley nor Ridley really care that he’s dead: he’s just acting out the sort of thing that heroes do in movies when people die. One expected Wayne and Garth to pop up and say "Yeah, like we’d end the movie like that!". We all know it wasn’t real.
Finally, there are the stock characters. We’ve mentioned Amedalia. We have Jeremy Irons doing a mock Shakespearean villain, e-nun-ci-at-ing every line. We have the ultimate geek icon, Tom Baker popping up for no reason to deliver some of Yoda’s old lines. Best of all, what almost makes the movie, we have Richard O’Brien camping it up as the head of the thieves guild, who puts Ridley, into, get this, a MAZE. Not, admittedly, a crystal maze, but nevertheless. If you ever played in one of those D&D campaigns where Elric and Frodo went up against Conan because the referee thought it would be kinda cool, you’d feel right at home.
Check. Check. Check.
Oh, I could go on. The way in which character's meet up at random and join "the party" without introductions or explanations because they are PCs and know that that is what they are meant to do. Arbitrary deus ex-machina for the good of the plot: when Ripley goes into the dungeon to retrieve the Staff of Something, the DM puts up an invisible barrier to keep the other characters out of the way "because only he is meant to go in." Arbitrary appearances by monsters from the monster manual who don’t actually do anything. The whole film is as perfect an impression of the kind of D&D games you used to play from about age 12 until you discovered Call of Cthulhu as it is possible to imagine.
The film ends with Ripley, wearing what appears to be a modern biker outfit, standing at Snails’ grave, and talking about how wizards and commoners are going to be equal, just like Snails, something of a civil rights campaigner in his spare time, wanted. When suddenly one of the elves starts talking mystical gumf again, about how maybe Snails isn’t really dead as long as we all remember him, when, bang, the writing vanishes from the grave stone and everyone is turned into a sort of swirly Tinkerbell bolt of lightning. The end.
You what? I mean, really, you what? What was supposed to have happened? It seems (seriously) obvious that something has been cut out. And I think I can guess what it was.
In the original version of the film, the swirly bolts of lightening were going to shoot over the city, out into space, and in one of those cosmic zoom effects, shoot off the planet and out of time and space. Whereupon, we were going to transfer to a geeky student bedsit, where all the actors, now in modern clothes, would be sitting around a table. There would be half-eaten pizza on the floor, and little miniatures looking like the characters from the film. Snails, of course, would be alive and well. There would probably be Doctor Who posters and Star Wars books and Crystal Maze videos, in order to drive home the point. I don’t know which character would turn out to be the DM; maybe Jeremy Irons? It would probably be filmed in black and white, like Wizard of Oz. All the characters would start to laugh and say "Yeah, that was a good game, same time next week". Snails and Ripley would shake hands to assert their real world friendship. Snails and the Elf-girl would probably be dating. Everyone would leave. The camera would linger for a few seconds over the dice and the character sheets on the table. The light would go out. The credits would roll. The end.
Had they left this ending in, it would be possible to appreciate the film for the classic it really is.