When it comes to the all-important bottom line, a successful movie or television franchise is a golden goose. Studios and networks and cable channels and streaming services seek out narrative properties that have potential, and if one is found to produce the desired results in terms of box office or ratings, executives will green-light as many sequels, prequels, and spin-offs as possible, squeezing gold out of the goose until it’s exhausted. Even less than profitable projects can be revisited with the hope that changing tastes or a different interpretation of the material will bring on a bonanza.
Such thinking might explain why Dungeons & Dragons — the popular fantasy tabletop role-playing game that was created in the mid-1970s and captured the imagination of unapologetic nerds for decades — has inspired another feature film, despite the relative failure of three previous Dungeons & Dragons-themed movies comprising a loose trilogy. Released to theaters in 2000 and featuring respected actors Jeremy Irons, Thora Birch, and Marlon Wayans, Dungeons & Dragons, concerning a battle between good and evil wielders of magic for the control of a kingdom, was a box-office bomb. It was followed by Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God, a low-impact 2005 TV movie with a cast of relative unknowns, and eventually, the 2012 direct-to-video nonentity Dungeons & Dragons 3: The Book of Vile Darkness.
Although that could easily be perceived as a downward trend, the flaccid response to those three D&D installments did not appear to dissuade Paramount Pictures from acquiring the rights to the property after some legal wrangling. Subsequently, the studio and its producing partners (including Hasbro, the toy and game company) have mounted a new stand-alone movie, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, with some big-name cast members and more spectacular special effects. It remains to be seen if this latest effort is met with support from longtime gamers and more mainstream audience enthusiasm than the trio of D&D movies that preceded it, but Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves — directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley — is better than it has any right to be, especially when compared to the earlier stabs at D&D franchise building. This time out, the actors are nimble and charismatic, the dialogue is tongue-in-cheeky, the setups are creative, and the visuals are over-the-top in a fun way.
TESTED BY A QUEST
It helps to have wry leading man Chris Pine front and center as Edgin Darvis, a noble do-gooder and troubadour whose wife is killed by his enemies. The loss is staggering, and Edwin turns to thievery to support his now-motherless daughter, Kira. Bereft and desperate, the widower decides to filch a magical tablet that could resurrect his late spouse. He teams up with comrade in arms and barbarian warrior Holga (a tough-as-nails Michelle Rodriguez), fledgling sorcerer Simon (a boyishly goofy Justice Smith), and the glib scoundrel Forge (a rakish Hugh Grant) to do the deed. During the caper, Edgin and Holga are captured by the authorities and imprisoned. Separated from his daughter and still determined to bring his wife back to life, Edgin needs to escape, gather up allies, reunite with Kira, and find the talisman. Insofar as quests seem to be central to role-playing games, this story is perfectly in line with its source.
Pine is no stranger to moviegoers after his well-received portrayals of Captain James T. Kirk in the rebooted Star Trek movies, Wonder Woman’s swashbuckling romantic partner Steve Trevor in the recent big-screen adventures of the DC Comics Amazon princess, and the young Jack Ryan in 2014’s espionage thriller Shadow Recruit. While Pine’s charm helps make Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves palatable, it’s the aplomb of Grant, reviving his career with a series of similarly rascally roles, that steals the show. With Pine as the lynchpin and Grant as the MVP, the cast is also enhanced by the presence of the dazzlingly handsome Regé-Jean Page of Bridgerton fame, here playing a chivalrous knight who aides Edgin and his band, and the gamine Sophia Lillis as an elfin shape-shifter.
Since the turn of the 21st century, we’ve seen a surplus of dragons, other creatures of myth, mighty warriors, and fiendish wizards in theaters and on TV, spearheaded by the immensely popular adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels into hit movies and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series into the prestige HBO shows Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon. With those forays into the fantastic priming the public, the timing might be right for Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves — even if it is diminished by the comparison to those far more expansive and serious endeavors.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is currently in theaters.
THE DOCTOR IS IN … A DOCUMENTARY
Doctor Who Am I is an ultimately uplifting documentary about the uneasy relationship between screenwriter and actor Matthew Jacobs, who wrote a crucial 1996 TV movie about a beloved fictional figure, and the passionate fans who felt Jacobs did the character wrong. Co-directed by Jacobs and Vanessa Yuille, Doctor Who Am I starts out as a look at a long-awaited confrontation and ends up as a sort of rapprochement that brings creator and audience together.
One of the most durable franchises in popular culture, Doctor Who is a British science-fiction juggernaut about a noble, heroic, human-looking alien known as the Doctor. Premiering on the BBC in 1963, Doctor Who was envisioned as a children’s program with a protagonist who travels through time and space, righting wrongs and sometimes preserving history. Families gathered to watch the show, and its popularity was such that it endured as a BBC flagship series until 1989, with the lead role having been recast six times — the change in actors explained as the result of the Doctor’s body regenerating when endangered. In 2005 the series was revived on the BBC with showrunner Russell T. Davies bringing a more modern sensibility to it. International syndication followed. A string of captivating actors attained stardom as the Doctor and were lauded at growing number of Doctor Who fan conventions.
From 1989 to 2005 the Doctor may not have had a regular presence in mass media, but there was an attempt to resurrect the show as a continuation of the BBC series and simultaneously launch it on American network TV. The plan was to produce a Doctor Who TV movie in 1996 as a backdoor pilot, air it on Fox and the BBC, and go from there. Jacobs — a British expat living in the Bay Area at the time — was hired to script the new Who (which was incidentally set in San Francisco), and suave English actor Paul McGann was tapped to be the Eighth Doctor. Unfortunately, the Fox premiere of Doctor Who was scheduled against the highly rated sitcom Roseanne and tanked. Some who adored the original run of Doctor Who were less than pleased with certain aspects of the movie and blamed Jacobs. The bad blood persisted until the 2005 revival of the series when people began to embrace McGann’s Doctor in retrospect.
More recently, Jacobs found himself invited to attend a Doctor Who convention, and he decided to face his detractors. He and Yuille brought along cameras to capture the experience, were moved by the unexpectedly conciliatory tone they encountered, went to more Whovian gatherings, and ultimately took a deep dive into the show’s fandom, meeting and interviewing a wide range of devotees. The culmination of Jacobs’s life-altering leap into a potentially hostile community is Doctor Who Am I, and it’s a thoroughly gratifying journey.
Doctor Who Am I is available to watch or purchase on various streaming platforms.
Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on The Mark Thompson Show, via YouTube, and on Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast, via GABNet.net, Roku, and iTunes. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster.