Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman wrote the first “Dragonlance” novel in 1984. As the first novel of the Dragonlance Chronicles, “Dragons of the Autumn Twilight” was reluctantly supported by then-parent TSR, but the story captured the world detailed in the long-running fantasy role playing game. With TSR bought out by “Magic: The Gathering” creator Wizards of the Coast, “Dragonlance” is now being revisited as WotC tries to expand the “Dungeons and Dragons” brand. The animated film “DragonLance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight” is being released direct to video and was created by South Korean animation studio Toonz. “DragonLance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight” is being distributed by Paramount Pictures and the original writers worked with screenwriter George Strayton to create the full-length feature film version of their story.
The animated adventure features Kiefer Sutherland and Lucy Lawless among its voice acting talent. “Smallville’s” Michael Owen Rosenbaum and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” Michelle Trachtenberg are also among the cast of the animated film. The film is directed by Will Meugniot, who previously worked on popular cartoons “The Real Ghostbusters,” “X-Men,” “Jem” and “G.I. Joe.” With the recognizable talent behind the film, it certainly appears that WotC and Paramount is hoping to create a franchise from the first “Dragonlance” film and perhaps bring the remaining two novels, “Dragons of Winter Night” and “Dragons of Spring Dawning” to video as well. WotC has been given a lot of credit for its handling of the Dungeons and Dragons trademark and this new animated film is not the first foray into bringing the game to life. Unfortunately, previous attempts were both overly silly and too focused on younger audiences.
“Dragons of Autumn Twilight” finds three friends battling an odd looking goblin. Tanis Half-Elven (Michael Owen Rosenbaum) and Flint Fireforge (Fred Tatasciore) come across a goblin hero named Toede (also voiced by Fred Tatasciore) and his goblin minions. A fight ensues and the dwarf and half-elven adventures are facing defeat when their friend Tasslehoff Burrfoot (Jason Marsden) comes to their aid. They defeat the minions of Toede, but do not kill the leader of the goblins. Later on that night, they join more of their friends at a local inn where the lovely Tika Waylan (Michelle Trachtenberg) works. The Majere brothers Raistlin (Kiefer Sutherland) is a wizard and Caramon (Rino Romano) is a knight after finding his father’s armor and sword. Their friend Sturm Brightblade (Marc Worden) is also in attendance at the inn.
While enjoying conversation and ale at the inn, the friends are introduced to the humans Goldmoon (Lucy Lawless) and her overprotective friend Riverwind (Phil Lamarr). At the inn, Tasslehoff listens to the grand story of an old man, Fizban (Neil Ross). Riverwind does not like the half-elven Tanis, but they are forced to travel together when it is revealed that Goldmoon has the blue crystal staff that Toede is desperately seeking. Goldmoon has used the staff’s power to heal a man and put out flames that burned him after the man accused Fizban of being a heretic for his stories of magic. After they flee in a boat from the goblin horde, the group decides it is best if they can travel together and find clues to show that the Gods are returning and the staff is a sign of their return.
The goblins are being sent after the staff by an evil wizard named Verminaard (David Sobolov). Verminaard worships the dark goddess Takhisis (Nika Futterman) and is bent on destroying villages and clans who may have possession of the staff, which could bring an end to his power. They group of heroes continue to fight the goblins and Draconian soldiers. They come across a large black dragon who are in possession of the Disks of Mishakal. They are reunited with Fizban, Tika and others when it is learned that survivors of dragon attacks are being collected as slaves. With the Disks in hand, which may be proof that the True Gods are returning, the heroes travel to the castle where Verminaard resides for a final battle between good and evil.
“DragonLance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight” doesn’t do much to buck the trend of pervious Dungeons and Dragons animated and live action films. This new animated film succeeds in not having a Wayans brother among its cast. It isn’t as child-friendly as the former Saturday morning cartoon series, but isn’t as entertaining or serious in tone as the follow-up direct to video sequel of the live-action 2000 film. This new animated film begins with a fight sequence that shows no blood and initially appears to be on the path to being a ‘kiddy film.’ However, just a few moments later the animated film introduces sexually-charged humor and blood begins shedding at a high rate. It attempts to be more mature in tone, but finds itself hindered by simple dialogue.
The animation of “Dragons of Autumn Twilight” is also uneven. Toonz combines traditional two dimensional animation with three dimensional computer generated animation. The 2D animation is an older style that was prevalent during the Eighties and seen in television shows such as “He-Man” and other animated shows of the decade. The 3D animation is created in a manner that it attempts to blend in with the flat 2D cell animation, but it is clearly more detailed. The higher resolution textures and smoother nature of the computer generated dragons and Draconian soldiers simply do not mesh well with the Heroes of the Lance or the very primitive looking goblin warriors. My opinion is that “DragonLance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight” would have best been served if it remained classically animated and left out the CGI artwork.
This little animated film makes a decent effort to expand the influence of the Dungeons and Dragons universe beyond its complex book and dice-based game. It is a decent fantasy adventure that is marginally better than previous attempts to bring D&D to the masses, but after the world has been introduced to the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and other recent fantasy fare, its story is not as wondrous as it needs to entertain for its entire ninety minute length. It is heavily laden with cliché and if you’ve seen a half a dozen other animated fantasy films, then you have already seen much of what is offered by “Dragons of Autumn Twilight.” The characters are nicely fleshed out and I admired the attempt to use the Human-Elven main character Tanis to discuss racism and segregation. The voice actors do a good job and I enjoyed the character voiced by Kiefer Sutherland, but their very modern sounding dialects and linguistics did not quite match the story.
There is better and there is worse. I don’t feel that “DragonLance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight” will do much to bring new customers to the Dungeons and Dragons game. It should find some revenue from fans of the game and that target audience should be nicely served by the animated film. There are some nice references to the game and “Dragons of Autumn Twilight” even pokes a little light humor at the rules of the game; such as the limited ability for a wizard to cast spells in one given day. The film moved along nicely for the first forty-five minutes, but I found my mind wandering during the second half as it became to feel repetitious and tedious. It you are looking for a cute and short Dungeons and Dragons adventure based upon the first D&D novel, then “Dragons of Autumn Twilight” might just be worth your time. If you were enthralled by the “Lord of the Rings” films and want to discover this other legendary fantasy license, then you might be disappointed in comparison.
“DragonLance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight” is presented in a full 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The animated film is quite colorful. I would have preferred my goblins to be a classic green and not vomit yellow, but the remaining colors in “Dragons of Autumn Twilight” were nicely saturated and colorful. Detail and resolution was not as good as I would have hoped. The opening credits exhibited line structure and the white words were quite ugly through an upconvert player. In fact, the upconvert player thrashed the visuals of “Dragons of the Autumn Twilight” regularly and the animated lines became disjointed and jagged. The higher resolution 3D characters looked far nicer, but “Dragons of the Autumn Twilight” looked archaic and I was hard-pressed to believe this was a brand new film based upon its visuals. Thankfully, the source was clean.
The DVD contains an English 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack and matching English 2.0 surround mix. Subtitles are provided in English as well. Overall, there was not a lot of variance between the 2.0 and 5.1 mixes. “DragonLance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight” is a front heavy film with most of the action occurring in the left and right speakers. Dialogue was rooted firmly in the center channel, but the rear surrounds showed little to no life for most of the film. I believe I heard dragons flying in the rear surrounds, but that was about it. The .1 LFE channel is also underutilized and whatever bass that was presented in the subwoofer seemed to be mirrored by the front channels. For a direct-to-DVD video, I wasn’t expecting much and while “DragonLance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight” was technically proficient, it was not overly impressive.
Paramount provided a few very minor supplements to “DragonLance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight” that was more than I would have expected given the nature of the title. An Original Test Animation (1:25) shows some very low resolution line test animations that show what the film looked like for a couple short sequences before the all important coloring took place. This was one of the nicer 85 second supplements you’d find. The second feature, Initial Character Design (2:40), includes some color designs and sketches for most of the characters that were drawn two dimensionally in the film. Some Previews (9:55) are also provided for Paramount films such as “Stardust” and “The Transformers.” I wasn’t expecting anything, so any features at all were a nice touch.
I’ve never been really big into Dungeons and Dragons, but have friends that play it religiously. I took part in a short ‘filler’ campaign a few weeks ago and found the game had changed quite a bit under the Wizards of the Coast ownership. WotC is trying to expand the realm of influence of their legendary franchise and “DragonLance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight” is the first animated film created under the control of the studio. The film should be marginally entertaining to those that spend time with a d20 and know about the old Saving Throw system. Newcomers to the Dungeons and Dragons universe could actually be put off by this animated film. It has some merit, but is uneven in both tone and animation. It was fairly true to the original story, but felt dated and lacked the depth of the recent “Lord of the Rings” adaptations. The DVD is a little weak in visuals, but fairly average in sound quality. This isn’t a big production, so I was not expecting reference quality, but I hoped for a better looking picture. The bonus features are short, but I did like the first line test animation feature. If you love Dungeons and Dragons, you should probably check out this title. Otherwise, I almost have to recommend a pass.