SXSW: “Game Night” directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein know how to play their cards right.
Breathing life into the beloved board game Dungeons & Dragons was no easy feat, as it took the roleplaying tabletop game’s long-gestating feature film adaptation four years to reach the silver screen on the opening night of this year’s SXSW. But patience, passion, and perseverance prevailed — and, incidentally, those aren’t just traits necessary for making any film, they’re also the exact mix one needs to succeed in the playing of the beloved RPG itself.
Drawing inspiration from the game’s unique improvisation and communal creativity, directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein successfully construct one of the best fantasy adventure films to date with “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.”
The story follows the heartbroken and comically calculated Edgin (played by the charming Chris Pine), an ex-Harper who has turned to petty thievery. He escapes prison with his barbarian best friend Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), who has spent years helping him raise his daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) after her mother was murdered. The two set out on an epic journey to save Kira from the grips of a former comrade named Forge (Hugh Grant) whose greed and selfishness knows no bounds. They team up with Simon, an old friend and self-conscious sorcerer played by Justice Smith, and his unrequited love interest, a druid shapeshifter named Doric (Sophia Lillis).
Each character possesses its own allure and magnetic mythology. Rodriguez is a dominant player who commands the screen with her strength, sarcasm, and sporadic moments of sweetness. While Grant plays an antagonist, his approach to evil is more cartoonish and jocular, successfully speaking to the film’s playfulness.
The film’s real wickedness is therefore left to Daisy Head, who plays a menacing Red Wizard named Sofina. Regé-Jean Page has a smaller role as Xenk, a deadpan paladin whose subtle facial expressions and minimal dialogue induce large laughs. The diametrically opposed characters that are often paired together spotlight the inclusive nature of the D&D world. One character’s weakness is another’s strength and the teamwork it inspires is what makes for a riotous, yet enjoyable experience.
The team of special effects artists and cinematographer Barry Peterson creates gorgeous, sprawling scenery and distinctive lands. Each individual region is visually stunning and the smooth camera work pans across the territory to give the audience an immersive feel for what kind of magic or mayhem each location offers.
Editor Dan Lebental successfully tackles quick, heart-pounding fight scenes and elaborate chase scenes with sharp precision. Whether it’s Doric shapeshifting into multiple animals on the run from Sofina or the gang trying to escape a dangerous yet delightful chubby dragon, the editing and camerawork keep audiences in the action without feeling overwhelmed or excessive.
Composer Lorne Balfe heightens the tension with a unique mixture of verbal chanting and rhythmic beats that properly enhance the meticulous stuntwork. The score morphs into a creature of its own and is unlike the soothing, sweeping scores of other fantasy films. Balfe also successfully leans into the bard lore of Pine’s character by composing songs that are light-hearted, poetic, and heavy with string instruments.
One of the film’s many charms is its strong use of both CGI and practical effects. Larger-scale monsters and world building utilize CGI but are executed in a manner that never takes the viewer out of the story. Practical effects and puppetry work shine brightly with any creatures or chatty corpses that are up close and personal with the characters. There is an added layer of nostalgia with that creative decision, which speaks to the tactile imagination that is a part of the original game.
D&D fans will also enjoy a plethora of callbacks including an owlbear, displacer beasts, intellect devourers, and gelatinous cubes. (Players with a keen eye will be excited to spot a throwback to the D&D cartoon series that aired in the ‘80s.) However, general audiences with zero knowledge of the game will be able to enjoy “Honor Among Thieves.” Screenwriters Goldstein, Daley, and Michael Gilio intentionally wrote an accessible script with lovable yet flawed characters that mass audiences can empathize with or relate to.
First discovering D&D on the set of “Freaks and Geeks” at 14 years old, Daley quickly embraced the collaborative and dynamic qualities that make the game so special. It is evident that he held onto these treasured memories while writing and directing the film, because there is a huge amount of heart present while navigating an expansive world filled with seemingly endless imaginative opportunities.
The film’s themes are far from esoteric. Loss, love, friendship, and bravery are featured throughout the storyline. Simon’s character in particular speaks to one of the film’s messages about trusting one’s self and having the confidence to embrace what makes each of us unique. Daley and Goldstein insert fun and emotion into the film but also subtle commentary about embracing one’s flaws and never giving up.
“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” conjures its own type of movie magic that proudly stands apart from other fantasy films. The heartfelt story, enchanting characters, dazzling visual effects, and fun-filled nature will allow the film to be a treasured classic. An adaptation of this caliber could be considered a roll of the dice to some, but “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” has already proved itself to be an ironclad winner.
“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. It will be released by Paramount Pictures on Friday, March 31.
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