Plaid pants and pistachio carpet were still in vogue when Gary Gygax and David Arneson created what came to be the biggest-selling role-playing game ever: Dungeons & Dragons. With it, they created a medieval fantasy world for impressionable minds to enter. Characters either play, or encounter wizards, sorcerers, dwarfs, elves, mages, monsters and demons. That was 1974. Twenty-six years later, it is estimated that 160 million people worldwide have played D&D.
The downside of D&D has been debated since its inception. But for the purpose of this review D&D (the role-playing game) will serve only as background. Dungeons & Dragons (the movie) is left here to stand or fall on its own. So from here on out, D&D will refer strictly to the motion picture, not the game.
Dungeons & Dragons is set in the ancient land of Izmer where lords oppress their subjects and magic is relegated to the aristocrats. Villainous mage Profion and his goon Damodar have conspired to overthrow the valiant Empress Savina. They lack but one magical tool. They need to find an enchanted scepter to tip the balance of power. When Marina (a magician student loyal to the Empress) and her new peasant pals Ridley and Snails learn of the wicked plan, they set out to capture the wand first. The stage is set. Dark dungeons await. Fire-breathing dragons lurk. Lost treasures loom. Dreadful magic is unleashed.
positive elements: Good triumphs over evil. Empress Savina fights for the equality of all people in Izmer despite opposition from the ruling class. In her estimation, it’s a man’s character that determines his worth, not his bloodline or social status. But such freedom comes at a cost, and she is willing to sacrifice her own throne for the cause. Marina sides with the Empress and stands against Damodar and Profion. Though hesitant at first, Snails and Ridley join Marina’s fight against the aggressor. Still, the pair instinctively distrust her aristocratic bearing. So she pleads with them not to judge her just because she is a mage. "Just because some mages are evil, doesn’t mean that they all are. I’m not!" she exclaims. The adventure continues, and the now-tight trio and a small contingent of warriors put their lives on the line in their struggle for justice. Ridley even manages to subdue his thieving nature in the midst of untold wealth (just as Disney’s Aladdin resisted the temptation to steal treasures from the Cave of Wonders).
spiritual content: Marina is an apprentice at a magic school. Indeed, her whole world is infused with magic. Marina and her comrades rely on invocations and spells to escape their enemies. Profion seeks to control the "immortal" power found in a scepter. In grisly fashion, Profion summons a demon-like creature to inhabit Damodar’s body. An elf heals Ridley when he’s critically injured. "We’re all part of magic," says the elf. "Magic is the life force of our world, it keeps nature and everything around us in balance." Ridley converses with an "undead" skeleton that tells him he must break the spell of a scepter. When Ridley defeats the spell, it is implied that he has the ability to raise people from the dead.
sexual content: A few women show cleavage and wear revealing costumes. Snails ogles an elf. Seeing his wandering eye, a dwarf offers a snide comment about the type of women he likes to bed, emphasizing his words with sexual motions. A thief slaps Marina on the backside and calls her a "precious mortal." A female elf warrior wears form-fitting steel armor that emphasizes her chest. Ridley and Marina share a kiss.
violent content: Intense at times, but much of the action is shot in such dim light that the details are obscured. Some scenes, however, stand out. A fire-breathing dragon scorches a man in an opening sequence. When a portcullis decapitates the dragon, its blood oozes into a river which bursts into flame. Risking death, Ridley conquers a video game-style maze of dangers, barely avoiding getting burned, crushed and impaled. Coming to Marina’s rescue, Ridley knifes a man in the foot. Two men are stabbed in the back and then thrown off high buildings to their death. In a lingering shot, Damodar twists a sword into Ridley’s shoulder. A few others sustain knife wounds. A grotesque spin-off of Spock’s Vulcan mind-meld (immortalized on Star Trek) has a monster’s tentacles latching onto Marina’s head to read her mind. A combat scene finds dragons serving as airborne bombers spitting fireballs at the enemy. During the aerial battle, one beast falls from the sky and is impaled on a steeple. A villain meets his demise when a dragon swoops down, opens his mouth and consumes him whole. Snails stabs Damodar to defend himself. Damodar breaks a teacher’s neck. An arrow pierces a man’s forehead. Characters engage in fierce hand-to-hand combat throughout the film using fists, axes, knives and swords.
crude or profane language: A half dozen minor profanities and crude expressions (h-ll, d--n, bastard).
drug and alcohol content: Ridley orders alcohol at a bar. A thief sips wine. Characters frequent medieval pubs.
other negative elements: Ridley and Snails are petty thieves. They take whatever they want and justify it with statements such as, "We might live outside the law, but we respect each other." Snails says, "[Let’s] lay low, come back and rob everybody." Ridley learns his lesson and stays his hand when it matters most, but Snails is incorrigible.
conclusion: With its gripping special effects and pseudo-medieval setting, Dungeons & Dragons becomes a not-so-subtle Star Wars rip-off. "[D&D] is like Star Wars with the flavor chewed out of it," wrote CNN reviewer Paul Tatara. It also takes cues from Indiana Jones (thanks to special-effects supervisor George Gibbs who won an Oscar for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). When Ridley negotiates the labyrinth, he finds himself confronted with moving walls, encroaching spikes, giant swinging pendulums and a treacherous pathway filled with collapsing tiles (sound familiar?). Ironically, such moments of borrowed drama are the film’s highlights. All too often Marlon Wayans drab comedy shtick reappears and quickly reminds audiences they aren’t watching anything that even comes close to a classic. Far too many scenes have Ridley and Snails coming off like Dark Age incarnations of goofballs Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Dungeons & Dragons falls victim to that evil Hollywood spell, derivation. This fantasy tale of good versus evil does include valuable lessons such as sacrifice, integrity and loyalty. But if its recycled qualities don’t keep families away, its skewed spiritual elements and violence will.