Filmmakers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (Game Night) have taken on a truly sinister Hollywood mission – to transform the world’s most popular tabletop RPG into a cinematic epic and rescue it from years of development hell.
Once a cult hobby, Dungeons & Dragons has recently seen a massive resurgence from Stranger Things. Luckily, this high-stakes roll of the 20-sided dice has spawned a lavish, light-hearted, roving, rampaging action-comedy – one that banishes memories of the horrifying 2000 adaptation. Co-writing with Michael Gilio, Goldstein and Daley drives Chris Pine’s witty bard Edgin and his band of medieval misfits on a daring heist on monsters.
The wise decision to combine D&D’s lovely setting and Forbidden Realms lore with an exciting new story makes the film feel authentic but accessible. You don’t have to be a seasoned dungeon master with an in-depth knowledge of the Monster Handbook to dive in quickly, as quick-witted Ed and his longtime partner Holga the Barbarian (an ass-kicking Michelle Rodriguez) break out of a long prison stint to care for Ed’s daughter (Chloe Coleman) reclaimed by another villain turned Lord of the Manor Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant).
Jumping Kira soon turns into a caper like a quest, especially when Ed and Holga recruit an Ocean’s Eleven-style crew with key qualifications. your goal? To crack the impregnable vault of Forge’s Castle Never and steal the magic tablet that will correct Ed’s past wrongdoing.
Daley and Goldstein are obviously aiming to recreate the group vibe of the D&D game; As such, Ed’s young picks aren’t heroes, just a smart but fallible couple unsure if they’re up to the task. Nervous young wizard Simon (Justice Smith) can’t control his wild magic, while Sophia Lillis’ shy shapeshifter Doric (who can transform from mouse to fly to fearsome owl bear) is a reluctant recruit.
And just like those lengthy D&D tabletop campaigns, the convoluted storyline is riddled with obstacles. In search of the vital, fabled magical helm that can open Forge’s vaults, the crew races through hobbit-like villages, vast green mountains, and lava-filled subterranean caverns of the realms. The world-building here, shot in lush Irish and Icelandic landscapes and on huge, sumptuous D&D-detailed sets, has the scale and scope of Lord of the Rings. There is also a Celtic-tinged musical score (by Lorne Balfe) that Frodo would feel right at home with.
But the film’s most compelling quality is trading the Tolkein/Game of Thrones tone of deep seriousness for Princess Bride-esque lightness and wit. There’s even a positive Monty Python feel to the hilariously inept magical cadaver interrogation session required to reveal the Helm’s historic hideout.
But while HAT is a slick genre mashup that confidently moves from Ed’s hilarious confrontations to camera chases and crashing sword fights, it never delves into parody or satire. Goldstein and Daley keep the danger hot in punchy action sets and Holga’s brawling melee scenes (without cheating fast cutting). And when Xenk, Regé-Jean Page’s perfect paladin, helps Ed’s crew in a brutal battle involving undead sorcerer-slayers and the mightiest, hungriest red dragon in the realm, the stakes are higher than a scream.
That light touch opens up the characters, too, as Simon wrestles with his witchcraft shortcomings (Justice Smith brings annoying fear and a subtle English accent to his portrayal), while Hugh Grant’s talkative, devious Forge is a worthy addition to his list of cheerful villains (see Paddington 2, The Gentlemen). However, Chris Pine’s mildly self-deprecating swagger and tongue-in-cheek charm are the film’s secret weapon, even as the film’s healing “found family” theme denies him romantic opportunities. There’s no place for her anyway in the happily overloaded episodic plot that relies on poignant, homely flashbacks to drive Ed’s sad motivation.
At a whopping two and a half hours, the convoluted narrative feels a bit baggy even by the standards of story-bloat fantasy cinema. Loves to wrap important backstories with clunky flashbacks or detours (Ed’s Thief Years! The Deadly Red Wizards of Thayn! Holga’s Broken Marriage – with delightful secret star cameo!) the rollicking screenplay demands the viewer’s close, unremitting attention.
All of this attention to detail pays off in the big showdowns, however, where a savvy blend of practical effects and high-caliber CGI bring D&D’s signature monsters to life. Ed and company fight for their lives in the High Sun Games arena, battling fearsome tentacled panthers, sharp-toothed mimics and the human-dissolving Gelatinous Cube.
Staying true to the tabletop D&D ethos, ingenuity and teamwork will prove key in the fight against Forge’s powerful Red Wizard ally, the devious Sofina (Daisy Head). At the heart of both the film and the board game is the deep sense of community and camaraderie that bonds the misfit quartet well. Whether Ed’s adventurous crew is franchise material remains to be seen, but this vast, richly drawn new world seems ripe for plunder.