"Dungeons & Dragons" had been a hit role-playing game for a quarter of a century as well as a favorite on-line computer simulation when New Line decided to bring it to the big screen in 2000. It had an enormous built-in audience and a $35,000,000 budget. It couldn't lose. Before it bombed big time.
The dragons were there. The writing, the acting, and the directing weren't. However, that didn't stop another company, Studio Hamburg Worldwide Pictures, from following up the first disaster with yet another one in 2005, this time going straight to video. If at first you don't succeed, try until you die. And die the two movies did, which, to the great relief of the game's parent company, didn't seem to affect the popularity of the original franchise. Now, Warner Bros./New Line present both movies in high-definition Blu-ray in a two-disc package in the event there are any fans still interested in seeing them.
"Dungeons & Dragons"
Here be dragons. Plenty of them. And here be dungeons, which is where the movie begins. Almost the whole film is dark and ominous, with just about every fantasy-movie cliché included you could imagine. Worse, it has all the earmarks of being made up as it goes along, sort of like the role-playing game on which it's based. If you can get through all the mumbo-jumbo preliminaries, the story turns into a straightforward quest saga but done at a hyperkinetic speed with herky-jerky pacing. It doesn't make for comfortable viewing.
The setting is Izmer, some faraway fantasy world governed by a council of mages, magicians, and an Empress, Savina (Thora Birch). It seems that Savina wants exactly what the head mage, Profion (Jeremy Irons), doesn't want: She wants equality and justice for everyone in her kingdom; Profion just wants the kingdom, period, for himself. He intends to crush the Empress and take over the kingdom by controlling the dragons of the land. The only problem is that he hasn't quite perfected the "control" part, and the dragons won't cooperate. He needs a special artifact, a magical rod, to command them, a rod he hasn't got but badly wants, and sends his henchman, Damodar (Bruce Payne), to find it.
That's where Ridley (Justin Whalen) and Snails (Marlon Wayans) come in. They're a pair of thieves who sneak into the kingdom's magic school one day and get involved in Profion's plot to obtain the rod, along with a beautiful young magic student, Marina (Zoe McLellan), and a dwarf, Elwood (Lee Arenberg), and eventually an elf, Norda (Kristen Wilson). Did I lose you already? Yeah, I thought so. Just be aware that Ridley, Snails, Marina, Elwood, and Norda are the good folk, and Profion and Damodar are the bad guys.
So what we eventually wind up with is a sort of miniature "Lord of the Rings," with a motley band of adventurers going from one place to another, fighting, chasing, and swashbuckling. Unfortunately, that's about all there is, with none of the charming characterizations we find in "LOTR," and no one to care much about.
Despite the hefty budget, some of the dragons look better than others. On too many occasions, you see, the CGI creations resemble stop-motion animation. I'm not sure if that's good or bad, but I thought we had gone beyond such things.
The next matter is sure: The acting is uniformly bad. In fact, it's worse that I can remember from almost any major motion picture in the past eighty years. Jeremy Irons, usually a good villain, chews the scenery every chance he gets, which is practically every moment he's on screen; he sounds and acts like Christopher Lloyd from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," but this isn't a comedy. Thora Birch, so good in "American Beauty" a year earlier and "Ghost World" a year later, here seems like an eighth grader in a school play. Marlon Wayans, playing the comic relief, acts like the reincarnation of Stepin Fetchit, playing an idiot from the Jerry Lewis school of comedy. The other actors are merely adequate at best, none of them exhibiting the least amount of charm or charisma.
I'm not sure who to blame for all of this except the director, Courtney Solomon, whose only other directorial effort was "An American Haunting" five years later. He has spent most of his filmmaking career as a producer, which is perhaps where his talent lies.
Anyway, as I say, the plot jumps from one thing to another, and only the visuals keep one even remotely interested in the goings on. Those visuals--towns, castles, taverns, costumes, creatures--look straight from a fantasy comic book and are often engaging enough to take our mind off the inane story.
Of course, there's a maze, too. There's always a maze. Every video game has a maze. And we get a little Indiana Jones action. And some "Star Wars." The fact is, "Dungeons & Dragons," the movie, reminded me of nothing less than a trailer for a fantasy adventure, a highlights reel flashing by in pretty colors. Not a lot here to hang a film on.
Film value: 4/10
"Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God"
More of the same. It's relieved somewhat by our knowing that Studio Hamburg spent a third as much money on it as New Line had spent on the first installment, and maybe people's expectations were lower. However, it doesn't help much. Starring Marc Dymond and a returning-from-the-dead Bruce Payne as Damodar again, the movie is as opposite the first "Dungeons and Dragons" as it could get. Filmed on a much smaller budget with digital cameras, it resembles something made for the SyFy Channel. It simply looks cheap, and instead of being massively fast-moving to the point of exhaustion, it's slow and plodding. One thing, however, in its favor: You'll learn that the stomach acid of a purple worm will eat through anything. I suppose that's worth something.
Film value: 3/10
"Dungeons & Dragons" gets an MPEG-4 AVC encode on a single-layer BD25, which isn't quite up to speed in transferring the 1.85:1 movie to Blu-ray. The picture ranges from exceedingly rough and gritty to overly smooth and glossy, with just about everything in between. Colors look good, though, with facial tones especially realistic. Definition appears average most of the time, and a fine veneer of grain gives the image a degree of texture.
"Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God" gets the same Blu-ray treatment, but the engineers had even less to work with. The filmmakers shot the second movie digitally, and it shows in a soft, dull, flat picture quality reminiscent of much television work. It hasn't a lot to recommend it except that it is, understandably, very clean, free of grain or noise.
The New Line engineers use lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 to reproduce the soundtracks, and in the case of the first "Dungeons & Dragons" movie, it's the best thing about the show. Although it's a tad forward and bright, it displays a solid deep bass, strong dynamics, and a few exciting surround sounds. The second movie has a far less-sophisticated sound design and doesn't provide much of anything interesting.
The extras on the "Dungeons & Dragons" disc are fairly decent, starting with a pair of audio commentaries, the first with director Courtney Solomon and co-star Justin Whalin and the second with director Solomon, cinematographer Doug Milsome, and game co-creator Dave Arneson. Following all the talk is a fifteen-minute featurette, "Let the Games Begin," about the creation of the game; a twenty-minute making-of featurette titled, appropriately enough, "The Making of Dungeons & Dragons"; and the deconstruction of several special-effects scenes. Then, we get eleven additional scenes, including an alternate ending and an optional director commentary, totaling about nineteen minutes; a widescreen theatrical trailer; twenty scene selections; English and French spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
For "Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God" the extras are fewer. There's an oddball audio commentary by Wizards of the Coast "D&D" special-projects manager Ed Stark and other "D&D" players with the commentators sort of in character as role players; a twenty-two-minute making-of featurette, "Rolling the Dice"; and a sixteen-minute featurette, "The Arc: A Conversation with Gary Gygax," the creator of the game. Things end here with twenty scene selections; English as the only spoken language; French, Dutch, and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Neither of the "Dungeons & Dragons" movies is very good. One is hyperactive; the other is inert. Well, at least the first movie has some interesting graphics, but I don't think that's what most viewers, including fans of the role-playing or computer game, probably want. My guess is that they are intelligent people who want a real story with appealing, sympathetic characters. They won't get them here.