Dungeons and Dragons Review
The realm of Izmer is ruled by the Empress Savina (Thora Birch) and the council of Mages. Her plans to relenquish some control of the all-powerful Mages to the common people are not going down well with everyone. Powerful Mage Profion (Jeremy Irons) aims to take control of the council and Izmer for himself. This he plans to do by bringing the red dragons into his power, but in order to do this he must obtain the sceptre that controls them. He sends out his henchman Damodar (Bruce Payne). But also on the case are the "good guys" in Mage Marina (Zoe McLellan) and the two thieves she persuades to join her on the quest, Ridley (Justin Whalin) and Snails (Marlon Wayans). They must get the sceptre before Profion can use it to control the red dragons in a battle with Savina's gold dragons.
I was initially tempted to put in the "similar releases" section above, the forthcoming Lord of the Rings movies. I hope, however, that they are nothing at all like this movie. Whereas that should be an epic fantasy adventure, this is pure comic strip, and nothing more. It does at least try to map itself out as a D&D game, with the various gaming characters meeting in a tavern, then embarking on a quest which involves puzzles, fights, and a climactic end battle.
As the villianous Profion, Jeremy Irons gives one of the biggest displays of hammy over-acting I have ever seen. Jeremy, if the film and television work ever dries up, there is definitely a career for you as a pantomime villian. In reality, both Irons and Thora Birch's character are cameo roles, as they appear mostly at the beginning and end of the film. And talking of cameos, look out for plenty of Brits popping up all over the place, like Richard O'Brien and Tom Baker. The main three characters of the film are actually the two thieves turned heroes Ridley (Justin Whalin) and his sidekick Snails (Marlon Wayans), and the Mage they help Marina (Zoe McLellan). Whalin's ok, but Wayans turns in a very annoying and somewhat racially stereotyped performance.
The special effects are what are meant to really sell the movie, and in places they are very impressive. The dragon battle at the end of the movie is particularly good. However, the special effects designer obviously likes "fly-by" shots, as we get lots of these around the various castles in Izmer. These look very "CGI" - nice CGI, but computer graphics nontheless. They would look more appropriate in a computer game than a movie.
The biggest problem with this film is its disjointed story line. Characters disappear into other realms, or have dreams that are important to the story, and we never see it or find out where they went. This turned out to be a budget problem, and many of these essential sequences turn up unfinished in the deleted scenes section of the disc (see the Extras section below). A more experienced director would have handled this a lot better than first-timer Solomon.
This film took a lot of flak from the critics on its initial cinematic release and although it's by no means great it's not really that bad. I actually found it annoying at the beginning, but it seemed to improve as it went along. A number of good set-pieces offset some of the bad acting, and although the direction and editing of the film is somewhat lacking, it's just about a passable enough piece of nonsense to waste an hour and a half on.
New Line discs are usually technically excellent, and this one is no different. This film features many scenes with bright and bold colours - deep reds, golds and the like - and are all handled very well indeed. It doesn't quite make a top mark as it has been bettered by other New Line discs such as The Cell but that's not to say it isn't very good indeed.
Likewise the Dolby Digital 5.1 track is every bit as big and powerful as you would expect. This is a movie that demands lots of directional effects, and this soundtrack delivers very well indeed. There is also a Stereo Surround track provided.
As usual with New Line discs, there are plenty of decent extras to be found here. Firstly, to get into the Extra Material section, you may have to negotiate a brief maze game (I say "may" as it doesn't always appear). Once in, you'll find all the extras in anamorphic widescreen, and they are:
There are 11 deleted scenes which can be watched with or without commentary from director Courtney Solomon. Remember all those narrative breaks in the finished movie where things don't quite make sense? Well, if the scenes here had been added back in, then the movie would have been a lot easier to follow. Usually, scenes are removed from a movie because they damage pacing, give away plot twists too early, make the running time overlong, etc. But here, many of the scenes were removed purely because of budget restraints. Judging by Solomon's commentary, if he couldn't get the money to do a scene exactly as he wanted, he just took it out altogether. Because of this, many scenes here are unfinished, with visible bluescreens, reference markers, and placeholder animatic special effects, but you need to watch them to understand everything that happened in the movie.
There are two commentaries, with very similar participants. Firstly there is a commentary with director Courtney Solomon, actor Justin Whalin, and D&D game co-creator Dave Arneson. This one is very much driven by Whalin, who talks excitedly with Solomon about the filming of the movie and working with the other actors. The second is a commentary with director Courtney Solomon, cinematographer Doug Milsome, and D&D game co-creator Dave Arneson. Although this is an extremely similar line-up to the other commentary, it is much drier and concentrates on the production side of things. In both commentaries. Arneson's input seems to have been slotted into otherwise dead space, and he talks about game related topics, and how the movie fits into it.
There are two featurettes here, the first being "Let the games begin". This is a 15 minute piece on the history of adventure gaming, and D&D in particular. An interesting little piece, but a lot of people talk about gaming as a "parallel with life's experiences". Oh dear...
The second featurette is a 20 minute documentary The Making of Dungeons and Dragons, which as you would expect, covers the making of the movie. Just about everything is mentioned here, from the obtaining of the rights, through to the location shooting, and obviously, the special effects development.
The Special Effects Deconstruction features four key effects-heavy sequences of the movie, and allows you to view it in various stages of development, from basic animatics, through to the finished product.
The cast and crew section is extensive in the personnel that it covers, but goes into no more depth than listing films. For far more information, the DVD-ROM features on the disc go into more detail.
Finally on the video side of things is the theatrical trailer presented anomorphically and with 5.1 sound.
Now we move on to the DVD-ROM features. Firstly we have the original website. So many times when a disc claims to hold the website, it turns out that it is little more than a front page with links forcing you online to get to the rest. Full marks here in that this really is the whole website (both the HTML and Flash versions) and everything is here. The site itself includes info on the cast and crew, pictures of the production, fantasy-related info, as well as wallpaper, browser skins and the like. An excellent effort.
Secondly there is a Fastplay D&D game which is a beginner's guide to world of Dungeons and Dragons gaming, and will get you started with a basic gaming scenario.
Finally there is a playable demo of Baldur's Gate II. Other New Line discs have included game demos, but at least this one is directly relevant to the movie.
Dungeons and Dragons is a fairly mindless piece of entertainment which, despite its many shortcomings, I found I enjoyed more as it went along. Just don't expect too much from it. New Line seem incapable of making a bad disc, and this one is no exception, having excellent picture and sound quality and plenty of extras.