What We Must Learn From the Disastrous Dungeons & Dragons Movie

By  · Published on August 5th, 2015

New Line Cinema

On Monday, Warner Bros., Hasbro and Sweetpea Entertainment called for a cease-fire and put an end to years of legal battling. The result? They’ll all be working together (in an “undisclosed arrangement”) to make a new Dungeons & Dragons movie.

Is this good news? I legitimately don’t know. On the one hand, I like D&D, and films based off of things I like are usually a net positive. On the other, the words “Dungeons & Dragons” and “movie” tend to leave a very specific taste in audience mouths. The taste of Marlon Wayans and a cruddy CGI sky full of cruddy CGI dragons. 2000’s Dungeons & Dragons; a movie few people saw, fewer people liked, and one that cleaned up with an impressive eight nominations at the 2000 Hastings Bad Cinema Society Stinkers Awards.

Have people forgotten about Dungeons & Dragons in the 15 years since its release? Does the slow trickle of RPG-adoring media like that one Community episode (“Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) and Zero Charisma mean audiences might receive a D&D movie in a more receptive light?

I have no idea (although I’d guess “probably”). But I do know that the Dungeons & Dragons movie we have is wholly terrible. And that by watching it, we can learn what not to do next time around.

Dungeons & Dragons Doesn’t Need A Hokey Audience-Insert Character

The twin heroes of the 2000 Dungeons & Dragons are Ridley (Justin Whalin) and Snails (Marlon Wayans). They’re ragtag thieves, and best buds for life. And they reek of that let’s make these guys super-relatable for everyone who doesn’t understand D&D variety of invasive studio meddling.

Everyone in Dungeons & Dragons speaks in some slight fantasy-ese manner of speech, reflecting the film’s old-world fantasy setting. Some even have English accents. Except for Ridley and Snails, who might as well be 21st century citizens dropped into a D&D campaign and fitted for tunics. They make bidet jokes. They fist-bump. You can practically see the studio notes written on the screen every time they speak.

Here’s a very salient exchange between Snails and Elwood the dwarf, after Elwood yanks Snails away from a conversation with an attractive female elf.

Snails: Wait, I gotta go back! I think I’m in love!

Elwood: With an elf? They think humans are a joke!

Snails: OK, I lied. I just want to hit it.

I can see the studio notes now: would Snails want to “hit it?” Or, “hit that?” Make sure that’s still a thing people are saying.

Audience-insert characters are a common element in anything with a sprawling, impenetrable fantasy or sci-fi setting. Luke Skywalker was just a farmboy with no real knowledge of galactic goings-on. Frodo Baggins just hung around the Shire smoking pipe-weed; he’s not involved in the whole ring-war thing. When their adventures begin, they know as little about the world as we do, and they learn at the same rate we do- allowing a film to introduce genre elements at a rate that won’t alienate a general audience.

Only, I’d think the success of Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings and other mainstream fantasy (Warcraft is looking pretty dense so far) has made the case that mainstream audiences actually enjoy big-budget fantasy movies. Maybe it’s time we throw away all those totally rad, super-relatable fantasy movie life preservers.

It’s OK to Take Dungeons & Dragons Seriously

Doubling down on the last point, 2000’s Dungeons and Dragons movie is excruciatingly campy. Watching it, you get a real sense that everyone involved with the film was terrified an audience might point and start shouting NERD at the screen if, god forbid, it starts taking things like scrolls and scepters and “The Eye of the Dragon” seriously.

So Dungeons & Dragons plants its tongue firmly in cheek for the entire two hours, and it’s all the worse for it. We’ve already got Snails, who’s an all-around disaster (and worse- does that hypersonic Ruby Rhod squeal a la The Fifth Element every time a fight breaks out). Also Jeremy Irons’ villain, the dragon-enslaving Profion. Irons cranks it to maximum overacting in every scene he’s in. Every single line of dialogue, delivered with Mufasa-murdering “Long live the king” intensity. I feel sorry for his co-stars. They must have been covered in spittle.

There’s also a steady stream of unintentional- or maybe intentional?- homoeroticism running through Dungeons & Dragons. And I lean towards intentional, if only because I seriously doubt an entire team of filmmakers could fail to notice the obvious double meaning in “I could suck the information right out of you”- whispered from a villain to one of the heroes he’s captured.

Again, Game of Thrones. Lord of the Rings. Warcraft. Fantasy doesn’t need the insulation it had in the pre-LOTR era. Let’s keep D&D free of all semi-unintentional suck-jokes.

New Line Cinema

If There’s an Adventuring Party, Develop All Characters Equally

A “party” – that is, a group of players/characters – is kind of a crucial component to the game. You need multiple people to play, and you need to corral all those people into the same narrative, so any standard game of D&D follows a party of adventurers working towards a common goal.

Dungeons & Dragons tries to emulate this, gradually building from a two-person hero team (Ridley and Snails) to a five-character group, adding mage Marina (Zoe McLellan), dwarf Elwood (Lee Arenberg) and elf Norda (Kristen Wilson). Marina has a reasonable impact on the story, even if it’s mostly getting kidnapped or crumbling into a whimpery mess every time she’s in danger (there another lesson in there somewhere- have the female characters actually do hero things).

But Elwood and Norda have almost no bearing on anything. Elwood joins the party early in the film, after Ridley, Snails and Marina bump into him and he decides (because why the hell not?) to join up with these adventurers on their righteous quest. From there, he does little besides grunt, eat, and occasionally swing an axe at something. Norda, meanwhile, joins up so late in the story that she has little time to anything of real value. Both end up completely forgettable; the kind of characters who exist as “the dwarf guy” or “the elf lady” in your head, only for you to marvel that they actually had names when you look the movie up on Wikipedia.

A Dungeons & Dragons movie doesn’t have to be beholden to the party system. But if it goes that route, everybody needs an equal share in the story. And they should probably join up at the same time, to ensure there aren’t any massive screen time imbalances. You know what? Just copy Guardians of the Galaxy. I can’t think of a better rogue-adventurers-come-together movie in recent memory.

Take Advantage of the Source Material, And All Its Glorious Weirdness

The benefit of adapting D&D over something like Warcraft or The Lord of the Rings is the sheer wealth of material to draw from. Not just a book or a few games, but a game that’s been around for 40 years and has ballooned outward with endless expansions and new editions. There’s untold material, just waiting to be adapted.

Dungeons & Dragons does take from the source from material, but most of what it’s adapted isn’t exactly D&D-unique. Elves. Dwarves. Mages. Dragons. A thieves’ guild. Maybe a couple of spells (that no one casts Magic Missile seems like an obvious oversight). I noticed precisely one very specific D&D element in the 2000 film- one sequence featuring a Beholder, that iconic floating-ball-with-a-big-eye-and-a-lot-of-tentacles D&D beastie.

If someone’s going to make a D&D movie, make an actual D&D movie. Not just a fantasy flick with dungeons, dragons and the D&D license. Include an actual setting from the RPG, unlike the invented-for-the-movie kingdom of Izmer. Use all the craziest D&D crap people have come up with over the years, including but not limited to:

Owlbear: just like it sounds, it’s a bear with the head of an owl. First its bear parts wrap you in a bear hug, then its owl parts peck at you ’til you die.

Gelatinous Cube: also like it sounds, it’s a ten-foot cube of living Jello, residing in the darkest, ooziest dungeons. If it engulfs you, you’ll be slowly dissolved and digested, The Blob-style. But it moves pretty slow, so that’s not so big a deal. Also, maybe it ate a super-rich guy and his wealth is still floating in there, visible from within the semi-transparent cube and looking very tempting…

Bulette: a jumbo-sized, armored land shark. Often gets a craving for horse or halfling meat, can’t stand the taste of elves.

That’s three out of nearly infinite possibilities of kooky, specifically D&D-branded elements that could go a long way toward setting Dungeons & Dragons apart from Lord of the Rings and Warcraft. Especially the more iconic beasties, like the Beholder, Owlbear and Gelatinous Cube.

And we already know the forthcoming Dungeons & Dragons movie will be set in the Forgotten Realms, a specific-to-D&D setting. That’s a solid step in the right direction.

New Line Cinema

Remember That Dragons Are Much Smarter Than You Or I

In 2000’s Dungeons & Dragons, dragons are well… dragons. They’re large, carnivorous, and they come in red and gold varietals. Their blood causes water to burst into flame, which really has no practical purpose in the movie. They show the occasional spark of intelligence, like lashing out when Jeremy Irons tries to enslave them, but throughout the entire film they’re mostly mindless beasts under someone else’s control, be it Irons or the benevolent Empress Savina (Thora Birch).

This is nothing like the actual dragons you’d find in D&D. Those dragons are genius-level beings with their own language, culture, etc.

In D&D, intelligence (among other attributes) is measured in points. The more Intelligence points something has, the higher its Ability Score and thus, its intelligence, is. Not complicated. Have an Intelligence Ability Score of two? You, unlike Frank Reynolds, have donkey brains. Have a score of ten and you’re an average human. The baseline score for a red dragon (the kind Irons is trying to bend to his will) is also ten… when just born. As they age and gain valuable dragon wisdom, their scores tick up to a high of 26. Much higher than your average Joe Human.

It might seem like a nitpick (and it totally is), but you’d think a movie called Dungeons & Dragons, that’s literal-minded enough to make “dungeons” and “dragons” the two biggest features in the story, would get the dragons right. And because it seems like a given that the next Dungeons & Dragons will have a dragon in there somewhere… so the least we could do is boost his brain cells.

Don’t Let Studio Drama Poison the Film

The road to making that first Dungeons & Dragons movie was years long and horrible in every way you could imagine. Director Courtney Solomon spelled out all those ways to Chud, many years back, and it goes a little something like this.

Solomon was hired just as a producer, while D&D was still owned by the gaming company TSR. TSR was run by dolts who wanted to push out a D&D movie to sell toys (Solomon smartly points out that D&D’s core audience doesn’t buy toys in the first place… well, they buy miniatures, at least) and who pooh-poohed potential D&D movies directed by James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola and Renny Harlin.

Then TSR was bought out by Wizards of the Coast, and Wizards quickly found itself in a years-long legal imbroglio. Eventually, Solomon was forced to make Dungeons & Dragons– and direct it, too, because no one else would- using the old TSR script and barely any time, just so Wizards could keep the film rights.

And when the next Dungeons & Dragons movie was confirmed on Monday, it was at the end of another two-year, endlessly corkscrewing lawyer war. And it’ll be produced from a screenplay written years back, amid said war – Chainmail, penned by David Leslie Johnson. And that sounds awfully like the setup that produced a Dungeons & Dragons where men fistbump, women are absolutely useless in combat and everything is coated in a thick sheen of screensaver-quality CGI.

We don’t know how amicably all the parties ended their legal troubles this time. I hope it was more pleasant than in the ’90s. And I hope none of that has any bearing on the quality of Warner’s big-budget Dungeons & Dragons effort.

All we can do now is wait. And maybe watch one of the original Dungeons & Dragons sequels. I hear the second one’s marginally less terrible than the first.