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Monday, 27 January 2014

I watched the Dungeons & Dragons movie so you don't have to.

Oh Jeremy Irons, you multifaceted enigma. Sometimes you're a critically acclaimed Shakespearean actor. Other times you do weird interviews where you imply that marrying your son for tax purposes is the same as legalising gay marriage. And every couple of years, you don some kind of luxious, shimmering robe for yet another role as Classic B-Movie Supervillain.
In 2000, that movie was Dungeons & Dragons. I've never played D&D, and the only reason I watched this movie is because last night I couldn't find my Alien box set, and my friend Alex sadistically recommended that I watch D&D instead. The fact that it was terrible wasn't really a surprise, but the sheer level of terribleness was so remarkable that I ended up being kind of fascinated. I mean, I've seen Krull, Zardoz, and any number of dire straight-to-DVD apocalypse movies. Surely a relatively high-profile idea like a Dungeons & Dragons adaptation couldn't possibly be as grody and cheap-looking as it seemed from the trailer... right?
No. It was definitely worse. 

I'm gonna start with some background info, mostly to clear up the obvious theory that this movie's general lack of quality was a result of them not having any money. It wasn't.
  • D&D had a budget of $45 million. For comparison, Galaxy Quest (1999), Blade (1998) and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2004) were all made for the same amount of money, at around the same time. The Fellowship of the Ring, which was released one year after D&D, cost $93 million. None of this explains why D&D featured the props and set designs of a '90s live-action Nickelodeon series.
  • The director bought the film rights to D&D when he was 19, but it took ten years to fund the film. He'd never directed a movie before, and originally only wanted to produce it, but was somehow ~forced to direct it, for... reasons...?
  • 10% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. 14% on Metacritic. Deservedly, it turns out.
One thing we have to keep in mind here is that Jeremy Irons is an Academy Award-winning actor. No matter how many movies he makes where he screams recycled supervillain dialogue at a CGI monster, he will always have that Oscar around to keep him warm at night. Also, the demonic satisfaction of knowing that he warped thousands of Millennials by being weirdly attractive as Scar in the Lion King. Basically, this:
I feel like there was a period in the late '90s/early 2000s when Jeremy Irons and Malcolm McDowell were locked in some kind of secret contest to see who could be cast in the most preposterous supervillain roles. But despite Irons' very fine showing in this movie, I fear that McDowell still won in the end. He was in two separate movies in one year in which he played a post-apocalyptic overlord with a robot hand. Two!!
I don't have any serious issues with the central storyline of D&D, because what else were you expecting from a movie based on Dungeons & Dragons? Even if they hired a heavy-hitter to write the screenplay, they'd still probably end up with a story where a generic young underdog dude has to hunt down a magical maguffin and then kill an evil wizard with a bunch of CGI dragons. The basic idea idea was that the hero had to track down a dragon-controlling Magic Rod before Jeremy Irons deposed Khaleesi Amidala (played by Thora Birch). So far, so mediocre. But sadly, the execution of this concept was so unforgivably terrible that just I couldn't let it slide.
Usually in a movie like this, the main dude is the most irritating person onscreen (a classic Shia LaBeouf role), but the sidekick and the love-interest in D&D were so awful that he was relatively bearable by comparison. The girl was Hermione Granger with all of Hermione's appealing traits removed, but Marlon Wayans' character was essentially a racist caricature whose entire role was to be comically stupid, clumsy, cowardly and shrill. Also, his name was "Snails". That was literally his entire name. Snails. The only interesting thing about this Harry/Ron/Hermione trio was that their acting was often weirdly reminiscent of kids playing pretend, or LARPing... which I guess is kind of true to Dungeons & Dragons itself. Someone actually pointed out to me last night that this movie is way more entertaining if you imagine that it's a "real" game of D&D being acted out by the players, which explains away the nonsensical plot, multitude of fantasy cliches, and shoddy acting.

Oh yeah, and there's a dwarf character. He has a ginger beard and erupts from a pile of trash halfway through, but doesn't really have a purpose in the movie as far as I could tell. Also, he isn't... actually... a dwarf...? I forgot to GIF him, but I don't have the spiritual energy to go back and make one now. Just imagine a drunk Santa Claus who spilled tomato soup down his beard and likes to start bar fights over money.
Jeremy Irons & his minion = totally in a BDSM relaysh.
You've probably already gathered from these GIFs that this movie looks hella cheap, which is why I mentioned the budget thing first. Like, WHERE THE HELL DID THAT MONEY GO? With the exception of the sparkly gold council chamber (which I presume was filmed in some kind of opera house or something), practically every scene looked like it took place a shitty TV set of sub-Xena quality, with the costume armour and prop weapons (including the endless number of phallic "magic rod" maguffins) very obviously looking like moulded plastic.
Yes, he seriously did interrogate Hermione by shooting worms out of his ears.
Now, I don't usually feel like it's fair to be too harsh on prop or costume departments because they basically just have to work with what they've given. I pay a lot of attention to costuming, and it's vanishingly rare for me to see a movie and think that it looks like the costume design is outright "bad,"  rather than just having a really low budget or perhaps not enough time to get everything finished. It's not really the same as acting, editing, writing, etc, where it's relatively easy to tell when something is legitimately terrible. In this movie, the actual design part is pretty much what you'd expect from the genre: lots of robes, nonspecifically medieval outfits, and silly armour. But for some reason it's all made out of really cheap-looking fabrics...?? As in, a few of them genuinely just look like Halloween costumes. I'm sure most of the people who worked on this film now look back on it with a sort of horrified amazement, if at all. Except Jeremy Irons, who is probably like, "Wow, I did some fine snarling in good ol' D&D. Definitely in my top five Snarl Moments of the early 2000s."
Speaking of which, the casting in this movie is so weird. Jeremy Irons is obviously the big name, but they also included a maze-related Richard O'Brien cameo as a reference to his role as the presenter of Crystal Maze... even though non-British audiences probably wouldn't even get the joke? I have no idea. He was actually one of the better actors in the movie, but this five-minute appearance from Richard O'Brien in his best Essex Girl earrings and gold sparkly robes paled in comparison to the cameo from none other than Tom Baker. As an elf.
Yes, while Dungeons & Dragons is clearly among the dregs of the big-screen fantasy genre, I do have to give it points for including two elf characters, and having those characters be 1) an old fat guy, and 2) a black lady with short hair and an actual job. If you think about it for a moment, you'll realise that this level of elf diversity is practically unprecedented. Lord of the Rings was more or less wall-to-wall caucasian supermodels, a fact that would have annoyed me a lot more if I'd watched those movies at 21 instead of 11.

But wait. I see something in the background there. Something vaguely distracting, that for some reason draws focus away from the central scene in which the bland hero is mourning the inevitable death of his black sidekick. What is it?
Oh, it's boob armour. And a fine vintage, as well! Perfectly designed to not fit very well, AND made from what appears to be spray-painted metallic plastic. A marvel. Most amateur cosplay armour is better than this. It even includes a bellybutton, which you'd think people would have avoided after the infamous fiasco of the main costumes in Batman & Robin, just three years before D&D came out. Still, it's not the worst prop/costume in this movie, a title that can only be awarded to this dynamite combo of fake skeleton and Important Magic Rod.
Considering the importance of the Magic Rods in this movie, you'd think they'd spend more time and money on making this red dragon summoning thingie look less like something you can buy from Amazon for under $10. Luckily, the audience would have been distracted by the extremely unconvincing animatronic skeleton in the background. Seriously, this dude is so weak he'd probably be rejected from most theme park rides.
One final baffling detail I've thus far failed to discuss is the presence of Thora Birch. This movie was made before Ghost World, which as someone on Twitter pointed out last night, is kind of baffling because starring in Dungeons & Dragons would be an EXCELLENT answer to the "What happened to Thora Birch?" question. I don't recall having seen any of her other work, but even in the nightmare of shitty acting that was D&D, she somehow stood out as being extra terrible. Her entire performance consisted of talking directly into the camera while barely moving her face or lips, right up until the end, at which point she showed up in a Queen Amidala/Joan of Arc costume for an underwhelming showdown with Jeremy Irons and his magical rod.

The main thing I took away from D&D was a morbid curiosity as to what Game of Thrones would've looked like if it had been, well... this. Superficially, there are quite a few similarities. The central storyline is a power struggle between warring rulers -- in this case Empress Thora Birch and Jeremy Irons' cabal of patriarchy wizards -- with little care for the common folk. Admittedly there's very little in the way of moral grey areas, but there certainly are a lot of dragons. Terrible, terrible CGI dragons that can be controlled using a plastic sceptre. Imagine if, like in this movie, every major scene in Game of Thrones was preceeded by a swooping exterior shot of a CGI castle that looked like a videogame cut scene. Imagine if Game of Thrones had Jeremy Irons. Actually, why doesn't Game of Thrones have Jeremy Irons? I think he's done with The Borgias now, and it might well be time for his next evil wizard role. It's been eight whole years since Eragon, after all.


  1. D&D the Movie legit remains one of the best experiences I have ever had in a movie theater.

    I'm not necessarily proud to admit that, because the reason it was the best is because I went with like 8 friends, we sat together near the back (in a very crowded theater), and the movie was SO BAD that we just descended into hooting and seal-clapping , and we were really obnoxious to be anywhere near, I am sure. (We were all knowledgeable about D&D. Those of us who were not active tabletop RPers at the time still had paid our dues at some point, so we were, in many ways, the target audience.)

    Right afterwards, we all went out to dinner and talked passionately for 3 hours about whether that had been, in fact, the Very Worst movie any of us had ever paid money to see, and if not, then what possibly could dethrone it. Sure, there are worst movies, but the point is, are there worst movies that were that much fun to ridicule, and that engendered such an enjoyable debate?

    I will forever be fond of the movie on those merits. But I am not anxious to ever watch it again. Lightning only strikes once.


  3. Oh, this movie. My all-lady MST3K group adores this film, because it is so marvelously awful. It's lazy, half-baked, and Jeremy Irons is the only glaze required to make it bake into the perfect movie to yell at with friends while drinking.

  4. AlmondBitters7 May 2014 at 16:34

    Ok, now that you've watched this you need to watch The Gamers 2: Dorkness Rising. The Gamers movies are great little movies made by tabletop fans about the campaigns that the protagonists play. They're not meant to be taken seriously (and they are white as hell), but they're made with affection for the source material and the people who play them. I haven't seen the third one and the first one is definitely more for people who are familiar with tabletop gaming and its quirks, but the second one is a gem. Basically, the D&D movie wishes it had as much heart.

  5. (and they are white as hell)


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