SXSW 2023: DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES — Sword and Sorcery Gets the Marvel Treatment

… for better and worse.

Today, there’s a severe lack of a particular genre of fantasy picture which used to be an integral part of the cinematic landscape in the 80s, with movies like The Beastmaster, Conan, Red Sonja, Krull, and more. Affectionately dubbed “Sword & Sorcery,” they weren’t “high” fantasy but focused more on thrills and titillation — frequently the elements that many teenagers would get into when playing Dungeons & Dragons with their friends. Many D&D campaigns start with the best intentions but frequently devolve into players pushing their Dungeon Master and testing their limits, seeing if they’ll allow a romantic encounter or unexpected violence.

There have been more recent attempts to bring this genre back, all taking wildly different approaches, but none of these films have captured the public’s imagination or garnered financial success. Your Highness (2011) tried to infuse stoner comedy, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) brought Guy Ritchie’s sensibilities and more “badass-ness” to a classic tale, and Warcraft (2016) leveraged video game IP, all to middling box office. Higher fantasy has had success with movies like The Green Knight (2021), but even that (barely distinguishable) fantasy sub-genre hasn’t seen real success since Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, with even the director’s own Hobbit movies failing to stay in the zeitgeist or reach critical acclaim.

Obviously, the elephant in the room is Game of Thrones, the best modern equivalent to the S&S fantasy sub-genre, and probably the most successful one of all time. The show’s deadly serious, featuring a ton of sex, violence, and nudity, replete with dragons and magic, but remains more grounded than its kin from the 80s. It took television by storm, but where are the movies?

This is where Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves comes into the picture, attempting what several 21st-century films have tried and failed: to reinvigorate the fantasy motion picture. It does this by making it a straightforward comedy with a tone similar to Marvel Studios movies, but thankfully without the baggage of sequelization and the serial nature of those superhero flicks.

It’s from the folks that brought you Game Night, so there are plenty of laughs to be had. The comedy mostly worked, but I couldn’t help but be consistently reminded of the big-budget “comedies” that currently dominate the landscape. There are jokes and gags straight out of Marvel movies; substitute in a character like Drax, and you’ll barely miss a beat, with a particularly egregious moment at the end ripped straight from the first Avengers movie. That isn’t to say the comedy was unsuccessful; it was frequently funny and elicited laughter, cheers, and applause from the audience. However, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d seen this all before with a different filter.

Content-wise, the tabletop trappings of Dungeons & Dragons do not feel inherently integrated into the story. As someone that has played D&D, it never feels like you’re actually playing the game. To be fair, though, this might be an impossible feeling to capture in film. There are fleeting moments that get close; a graveyard scene in particular distinctly feels like a DM lovingly toying with their players by strictly following the rules to exasperatingly funny results. But for the most part, the D&D IP provides a fantasy setting that feels extremely dense and vast (because it is), and it gives these storytellers the ability to showcase a big world without creating it whole cloth. Shift the setting to any generic fantasy, and the story doesn’t change–besides the copious in-jokes and references which fill the film. D&D feels like a playground for the creators, but not an integral part of the story they’re telling. Depending on where you’re coming from, this could be positive (those unfamiliar with D&D or the fantasy genre) or negative (people looking for something that really captures what they love about the game). Those that love D&D will have countless references that will be lost on casual audiences, but is that enough?

Negativity aside, there’s a ton to like about the movie. The cast coasts on charm, with Chris Pine leading the way (as well as a particularly funny turn from Regé-Jean Page). It’s incredibly colorful and goofy, and blessedly doesn’t tone down fantasy elements. There are also some wonderful individual scenes, even if everything doesn’t particularly gel; a standout heist using a teleportation circle went haywire in all the best ways.

While I’m not sure Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves breaks through the Sword & Sorcery barrier for this 21st-century film, it’s a successful big-budget comedy and provides enough thrills that I hope the team gets another chance at telling a story in this universe.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves had its world premiere at SXSW 2023, and will be released on March 31, 2023 courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

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