From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Films of High Adventure: Dungeons & Dragons

For a few months now, we (meaning Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer) have been re-watching old fantasy and adventure films that influenced one or both of our respective childhoods and blogging about whether or not, for us, they withstand The Test of Time. So far we’ve done, among others, The Company of Wolves, Legend, and The NeverEnding Story. This month we take on Dungeons & Dragons. Yep. That’s right. Dungeons Ampersand Dragons, the one with Jeremy Irons as an evil wizard. And lo, there was gnashing of teeth. . .

Film: Dungeons & Dragons (2000)

WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Gary Gygax, for starters—obviously poor Gary wasn’t directly involved beyond showing up for a cameo and some green room grazing, but he got the twenty sided die rolling way back when. We can’t even place full blame on director Courtney Solomon, this being his debut as a director—poor kid was first level and didn’t multi-class as screenwriter (Molly says: Booooo) until his second, and to-date final, film, An American Haunting, which features Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, and James D’Arcy having a competitive scenery-eating contest. No, if we want to slice the blame pie, largest pieces go to screenwriting team Topper Lilien and Carroll Cartwright, whose only previous work was on the Aging-Paul-Newman-Letches-on-Linda-Fiorentino snoozer Where the Money Is. They’ve worked on nothing else since—make an intelligence check to see if you think this is the result of their being ludicrously wealthy from Dungeons & Dragons royalty checks. Acting, which ranges from the painfully awful to the surprisingly competent to the genuinely absurd, by Justin “Childs Play 3” Whalin, Zoe “Lots of TV After This” McLellan, Marlon “Hey, He’s Not the Worst Wayans” Wayans, Thora “For the Love of All That is Holy, Fire Your Manager-Father” Birch, Bruce “Passenger 57” Payne, Lee “The half of the Pirates of the Caribbean comic relief duo that wasn’t on The Office” Arenberg, Kristen “Mega-Python Versus Gatoroid” Wilson, and Richard “Riff-Raff” O’Brien. Oh, and Jeremy motherfucking Irons having the time of his life as an evil sorcerer—Malkovich must have been taking notes for Eragon (Molly says: dude, they probably talked about it on-set—Irons was in Eragon, as well, taking the role no less seriously).

Quote:

Snails: “She must’ve put some kinda holding spell into that bracelet.”

Ridley: “Yeah—must be the only way she can get guys to come home with her. “

Marina: “I’d have to put a feeble mind spell on myself to want to take you home.”

Quote from Jesse Upon Hearing the Above Exchange: “It burns us, it burnnnnns us!”

Quote from Molly Upon Hearing the Above Exchange: “Oh, this is simply fabulous!”

Alternate Quote:SNAAAAAAIIIIILLLLLSSSSS!!!!!! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!”

First viewing by Jesse: In the theatre, so early college—the respective siren songs of Thora Birch, Jeremy Irons, and a well-spent youth of dungeon crawling ensured my presence at the premier. I assumed it would be pretty bad, but also amusing in its awfulness. I was half right.

First viewing by Molly: A few weeks ago. Due to some traumatizing experiences with D&D I was deeply suspicious of pencil and paper RPGs until meeting Jesse and being introduced to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying in, if memory serves, 2005. I mean, these were events so unpleasant I never even considered renting D&D, even though it was about dragons—and I saw Reign of Fire in the theatre. Twice. Anyways, without going into too much detail, what I knew about D&D came from (1) a two-week dating stint with a creeeeeeepy fucking boy in middle school, and (2) an uncomfortable evening one cold night whilst I was studying abroad in Ankara, Turkey, when my home professor got a wild hare to run a game, made us characters, and ran us—once—while his wife screamed at him for not minding their two very young children because she was trying to do “real work” in the other room. Even discounting the discomfort of witnessing private marital difficulties, the game sucked owlbear balls, and really the only thing I remember about the “campaign” was that at some point I had to make a shout check or some shit like that to someone standing ten feet down the hall from me. I failed it; we died. When I asked how someone couldn’t hear me muttering ten feet down an echoing stone hallway I was told I “just didn’t get it.” Fucking hell, even writing about that night is making me irritated and embarrassed, so I’ll be moving on now.

Most recent viewing by both: A few weeks ago.

Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Given that the express purpose of this column is to revisit films that one or both of us enjoyed in our youth, you may be asking why in the nine hells we’re covering this pile of garbage. The answer is that Molly really wanted to see it, and since there was no way I was willing to re-watch this without some justification beyond the Tanz’s epic masochism I agreed we could make a column out of it. . . provided she relinquish her veto power and let me pick next month’s feature with absolutely no argument. That, as John Travolta would say in Battlefield Earth, is the power of leverage.

Impact on Molly’s childhood development: I recall laughing at a preview.

Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:

Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Dread. Considering I had initially watched it higher than a Georgia pine and it was awful, I couldn’t imagine how bad it would be now that I eschew the halfling’s leaf in favor of Elvish draughts, Dwarven ales, and wizardly potions. Because we’re talking about fantasy movies? Anyways, I steeled myself for the trial ahead, mixed a dark n’ stormy, and gave myself over to the hurt.

Molly’s thoughts prior to watching: I was sooooo excited. The D&D movie is such a legend among fantasy nerds (just callin it like I see it, folks) for being so detestably awful that I became curiouser and curiouser the more I heard about it. I suppose that’s an inaccurate way of putting it, actually—I never heard more than groaning and retching when I asked the simple question “but what makes it so bad?” No one would do more. Seriously! Jesse, too, was mute on the subject, but I somehow sensedthis was not due to his usual pathological aversion to “spoilers” but rather some form of PTSD. Now, I have seen some shitty fantasy movies in my day even before starting this column and discovering Ladyhawke. I’ve seen Eragon. I’ve seen Flight of Dragons—more than once. I didn’t believe that D&D could be worse than either of those. But you know those quiet nagging doubts? The ones that say things like “You know how people who have seen/read Eragon can’t shut up about how dreadful it is? Why. . . why isn’t the D&D movie eliciting the same cheerful “OMFG” chatter? Why are people just shuddering and looking ill?” But I never listen to those quiet, nagging doubts—and thus we rented Dungeons & Dragons.

Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: What a stupid, detestable film. The script ranks as one of the rankest since Mortal Kombat 2, and the actors reflect this awfulness with either confusion, in the case of Thora Birch, or with relish, as in the cases of Jeremy Irons and Richard O’Brien. Irons in particular is a sight to behold—you can just tell this was his favorite role in a long time. It’s easy to imagine him in wardrobe, looking back and forth between his costume and his script, a tear of joy in his eye and a fist jabbing the air as he exults a triumphant booyah. That’s just how Irons rolls—the dude is a classy fucking thespian.

One respectable actor going to camp does not a enjoyable film make, however, and re-watching it with Molly I was reminded all too clearly of how my friends and I had tried to make bad roleplaying jokes as we watched in a vain attempt to improve the deeply shitty experience. “He failed his dex check.” “I wish I had her charisma score.” Awful as such whispered asides were, the movie is, bafflingly enough, even stupider. Some moronic stuff happens, there’s a bunch of bullshit, people talk some weak, Marlon Wayans falls into a carpet made of oatmeal, horribly rendered CGI dragons fly in from the set of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, there’s an ending that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, and roll the goddamn credits. You’d be better off with the cartoon, which is not a burn I dole out lightly or often.

Just as a poorly written novel can be as instructive for a writer as a good one, this film is a valuable tool for teaching screenwriters, actors, directors, dungeonmasters, and anyone else unlucky enough to watch it what not to do. In life. Don’t do this, don’t be like this, just. . . don’t. Don’t don’t don’t. Anything they might have done right, such as casting some people of color in their fantasy movie, they utterly bungled in the execution, such as casting Marlon Wayans, naming his character Snails, and having him serve as comic relief (Molly says: I gotta disagree about it being a mistake to name him Snails. Every goddamn time anyone said his name, I laughed until I cried. Why was his name Snails? Why? I mean—Snails? What? Is that. . . a name? For anything other than a group of more than one snail? I’m writing this on an airplane, and cracking up again thinking about it, eliciting irritated sidelong glances from the other passengers. But seriously. SNAAAAILS! NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!). Sample comic relief, given while Wayans and the shmucky lead are robbing a tower: “Why don’t we just rob God while we’re up here?” Hilarious, because he is of the thief class, and they are in a tall building. (Molly says: I laughed, but for all the wrong reasons). And also, what? God? Which god? Isn’t this a fantasy film expressly set in a fantasy world with many, many gods? Oh, Snails.

Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: WOW. Wow! What?! This movie got made. Let’s just pause for a moment and think about that.

OK, moving on, I maintain it’s not as bad as it could have been [Jesse says: Oh, Molly—you are sick inside]. I mean, I made it all the way through, which is more than I can say for Time Bandits [Jesse says: so very, very sick. . .]. And it doesn’t have Rutger goddamn Hauer deciding apropos of nothing that near-strangers should murder his girlfriend if he doesn’t come back alive from a foolhardy quest, only to be saved by an eclipse. Or whatever. And it could have been far more boring. I stayed awake! And there’s something sort of fascinating about a film that was clearly intended to be fan service (see quote above) that instead just manages to infuriate and bore everybody. People who played D&D, people who didn’t—everybody.

But really, this movie is terrible. I knew from the get-go I would be enjoying it solely because I find horrible things mesmerizing, as the film makes no bones about being set in the two stinkiest realms oft-trod by bad fantasy films: the Land of the Zany and the Kingdom of Whimsy—both places I hate visiting. Wisecracking is always difficult on my sensibilities, as is a plot that revolves around capers, high jinks, and general nyuk-nyukking. Ugh. This movie—I mean, wow. And yet, I hated it far less than Jesse, which is strange, because as loyal readers know, he’s usually far more charitable than I am (or at least pretends to be, in order to play Good Cop for the column). Really, though, the movie was genuinely no worse (and far shorter in terms of time wasted) than the role I endured playing that cold, awkward winter’s eve on campus at Bilkent Üniversitesi, in the toy-strewn apartment of my professor.

One thing I found extra-fascinating: the single most unlikable character in the whole film was the smarmy lead. He was dreadful. Even Marlon Wayan’s character had some moments where I didn’t hate him (. . .because he was named Snails), though come to think of it, I’m pretty sure Eddie Murphy must’ve seen D&D and found inspiration for his take on the role of “Donkey” in Shrek in Mr. Wayan’s comedic stylings, and that makes him retroactively dispicable. Damn. Now everything sucks about D&D. Even. . . even Snails. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!

High Points: Jeremy Irons. I mean, just look at him:

Low Points: Jesse says everything not directly involving Jeremy Irons acting like Saruman on some bad drugs. Molly says that’s unfair—Richard O’Brien was taking his role of Bandit Chief or whatever quite seriously. . . but come to think about it, his professionalism made the film so much worse for its presence, so maybe he was a low point after all.

Final Verdict: People who have seen this, I exhort you: tell others why it sucks. Be frank, say something like “it is boring” or “imagine the discomfort and mortification you would feel if you were forced to watch an exasperatingly banal D&D campaign wherein the DM clearly thinks he is a godlike badass and the players are entirely certain their characters are the coolest.” Silence on your part will just make for undeserved curiosity in the ignorant. This film should not have anything as cool as a shroud of mystery about it.

Next Time: What could be better than a film about a hunter? How about a hunter from the future?

Jesse Bullington is the author of the novels The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart and the upcoming The Enterprise of Death, and his short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in ChiZine, Brain Harvest, Jabberwocky, and several anthologies, including Running with the Pack and The Best of All Flesh. He lives in Colorado and can be found online at www.jessebullington.com.

Molly Tanzer is the Managing Editor of Fantasy Magazine and Lightspeed. Her fiction appears in Running with the Pack and Palimpsest, and is forthcoming in Historical Lovecraft and Crossed Genres. The account of her playing minigolf with zombie band The Widow’s Bane can be found at Strange Horizons. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and a very bad cat. You are welcome to visit her any time over at her blog.