Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Dungeons & Dragons/Dungeons & Dragons – Wrath of the Dragon God Blu-ray Review

Dungeons & Dragons is a powerful brand.  Even those that haven’t held their breath as they rolled a twenty-sided die have at the very least heard of it.  With the global awareness of the brand, one would think that selling a movie based on the franchise would be an easy sell but it took a long time to reach the big screen.  Even with a built in audience ready and eager for a movie, it still took almost thirty years for that to happen. With all of that goodwill and anticipation plus the involvement of legendary producer Joel Silver,  the movie must have have been great right?  Sadly no.   Every time I think of this movie I can’t get over what a wasted opportunity it represents.

I’m one of those hardcore fans as I first got into playing D&D (as it’s called) in the eighth grade along with my good friend Randy.  Back in those days, we had a portable backgammon set that we rolled in and he had the original softcover dungeon master and player guides.  Eventually, his brother Ryan joined us and much later my other friends Tom and Tim joined the mayhem as well.

I look back fondly on the quests that Randy sent us on and even his low level quests were interesting and challenging.  As our characters grew more powerful, he always kept the stakes high and the missions were epic.  I’m still astounded by the level of detail and creativity he brought to our adventures.  For our final adventure, he wrapped up about ten years of plot-lines and revealed how they had all been tied together despite their seemingly unrelated nature.

I bring all of that up because Courtney Solomon somehow finagled the chance to write and direct a big screen Dungeons & Dragons movie and he didn’t even bother to be true to the universe his movie was based on and to make matters worse, it wasn’t even good.  My friend Randy could have come up with a better script over a weekend than this pathetic attempt that only tarnished the brand and left fantasy movies as a whole to be shunted aside once again until the Lord of the Rings movies came out and showed how they could be made well, be true to their source, and still be embraced critically and commercially.

Dungeons & Dragons (1 out of 5 stars)

When the first movie was announced I was pretty excited but that excitement didn’t last once I saw this misguided disaster that bared little resemblance to its namesake property.  On paper it all might have sounded like a winner with headliners  Jeremy Irons and Thora Birch who was just coming off of Oscar winner American Beauty.   Unfortunately, for some reason, they were two of the weakest links in the movie.

That’s not saying much though since the entire movie was fairly terrible.  The D&D universe was ignored except when it was convenient or just to pander to fans (the beholder) and what’s even worse is the fact that Solomon and company seemed to go out of their way to ruin what made the franchise popular.  By ignoring character classes and making a joke out of whatever is left, the movie spectacularly fails on every level.

Justin Whalen stars as Ridley Freeborn who is a fairly inept thief who is paired with an even worse thief named Snails (Marlon Wayons) who may or may not be mentally challenged.  Together, they brilliantly decide to rob the mage’s tower which isn’t that bright since the mages control the city and are the undisputed force in the land.  They’ve grown so powerful that one of their own named Profion (Jeremy Irons), wants to usurp the throne from Empress Savina (Thora Birch).  All he has to do is convince his fellow mages to join his uprising and get the the Rod of Savrille (which controls Red Dragons).  Once he has the power, Profion plans to force the Empress to turn over her magic scepter that controls Gold Dragons.

Those plans go awry when Ridley and Snails break into the tower and stumble upon the map leading to the Rod of Savrille and witness Profion’s henchman Damodar (Bruce Payne) murder the caretaker of the magic storeroom.  They manage to escape with the help of the murdered man’s apprentice Marina (Kristen Wilson).  From there on it’s a chase as Damodar follows them as they attempt to reach the Rod before him.
There’s some decent action and it’s always good to see dragons fighting, but the best part of the movie is the maze of traps that Ridley has to survive and overcome in the Thieves Guild despite the fact that a lot of it was ripped off from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

There are actually many movie thefts but none of them can save Dungeons & Dragons because the acting in this movie is so atrocious.  Most glaring is the overacting by Jeremy Irons who is usually very good but here he raises chewing scenery to an art-form.  It’s indiscernible whether or not his performance was deliberately bad as a hidden message to the viewers (“I know this is terrible but I needed the money wink wink”) or if it was a bold acting decision that went terribly awry.  What makes it even funnier is the fact that while Irons screams every one of his lines, his henchman Damodar (who likes to wear blue lipstick) whispers all of his.

And then there’s Marlon Wayons as the reviled Snails.  I hated this character and the lame humor he provided that dragged the movie down to a juvenile level.  And I wasn’t alone in that opinion because when I saw the movie theatrically the audience clapped when something bad happened to his character and booed at the sign of his return.  Thora Birch is wooden and clearly unsure of what she’s doing there and seems to be as bewildered as the rest of us as to why she is there.  Justin Whalen smirked so much in this movie that I was wondering if his face got stuck from doing it too many times.  His performance is arguably better than the rest of the cast but that’s not saying much.  Let’s just say I had to roll a constitution check for this movie and I failed.

Dungeons & Dragons – Wrath of the Dragon God (3 out of 5 stars)

After the debacle of the original movie, the producers wisely took some time off and came back to make a sequel set one hundred years after the first one.  In another wise move, the writers hired were actual D&D fans who made more of an effort to tie the movie in with the actual game.

Now the classes were accurate, the spells were recognizable, and although it was still set in the same city as before, it was nice to see an effort was made to address the complaints about the first movie.  Unfortunately, another leftover from the first movie returns as Damodar is retconned into surviving the last movie due to an off-screen undead curse that was put on him by Profion.  Not only has his looks changed (now he wears black lipstick) but he is now a mage instead of a fighter to make the plot work.

Much like the first movie, Damodar is on a quest to find a magical relic but this time it’s for himself as the Black Orb will resurrect him and give him enough power to take over by bringing back the Night Dragon Faluzure .  He is soon joined by a Lich who covets destruction as much as Damodar and is willing to help him as long as there’s no danger to him.

The only people that can stop Damodar is the retired Captain of the King’s Guard, Berek (Mark Dymond), his wife Melora (Clemency Burton-Hill), the shifty rogue Nim (Tim Stern), the wizard Ormaline (Lucy Gaskill), the barbarian Lux (Ellie Chidzley), and the cleric Dorian (Steven Elder).  These five champions are sent to kill Damodar and to stop the Dragon from fully awakening.

Despite not even having half of the original’s budget, this direct to video movie is a lot better.  The attention to detail pays off as the adventurers worked well as a team and performed their customary functions within a group.  Creature design was also more accurate and done better and the acting was considerably better too.  Best of all, the lame humor from the first game was entirely removed which allowed the film to take a more serious tone which helped a lot.

The CGI could have been better but I can overlook low budget films if they can make up for it with good characters, action, and a good plot.  Although this film does have a basic plot, the characters themselves were more interesting than the first movie’s, but they could have been better.  For me, my primary enjoyment of the movie was based on seeing so much of the game in the movie.  Seeing the gem of true seeing work, or a vorpal sword in action, and the Ring of the Ram and a Staff of Lightning get used makes my inner geek happy.  For those of you that have never played D&D, I’m not really sure if you will enjoy it like I did.  I can only say that after watching the first movie, this one played a lot better and wherever it may have failed, it did so with good intentions which makes all the difference for me.


Dungeons & Dragons (4 out of 5 stars)

Dungeons & Dragons – Wrath of the Dragon God (4 out of 5 stars)

Both Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeons & Dragons – Wrath of a Dragon God offer 1080p transfers (1.85:1) and the quality for both is a lot better than their previous DVD releases.  While the first movie benefits from a wide palette of color that pops off the screen vividly, the detail suffers every time one of the CGI effects appears.  Black levels go back and forth between a nice deep black to washed out depending on the scene.  The second movie has a sharper image but lacks the variety of colors that the first one had as it’s limited to a muted grayish look for most of the movie.  Flesh tones are more consistent in the second movie as well.  Detail is also improved but suffers from the same defects as the first movie when CGI is involved.  Both of them are acceptable for low budget movies but nothing to be amazed by.  They are equally acceptable in different ways.


Dungeons & Dragons  (4 out of 5 stars)

Dungeons & Dragons – Wrath of the Dragon God (4 out of 5 stars)

Both movies offer DTS-HS Master Audio 5.1 mixes and both fare better in this area.  While dialogue is clear in both movies, the first movie’s larger budget allowed their mix to be more lively and directional.  There’s a lot more LFE in the first movie as well but both mixes sound better than they should for low budget movies.  From sword clashes to dragons using their breath weapons, there’s a lot to like and I also liked the ambient sound-field across the channels.  Rear speakers get some action as well and the score is ever present.  The first movie’s mix is a lot louder and fuller, but I think I preferred the second movie’s more atmospheric mix.  It may not be as flashy but it definitely was more evocative.

Special Features

All of the extras are in standard definition and none of them are really worth your time unless you are a hardcore fan.  I haven’t reviewed anything in a long time that offered this many unintentional laughs as these extras did.

Dungeons & Dragons (3 out of 5 stars)

  • Audio Commentaries - There’s two commentaries to choose from: one with director/producer Courtney Solomon, Justin Whalin, and D&D co-creator Dave Arenson, and a second one with Solomon, Arenson and director of photography Doug Milsome.  This is an extremely embarrassing track for all involved as they recorded it before the movie was released and their constant self congratulation about the movie and to each other provides hilarious fun.  Solomon and Whalen honestly believed that this was a fantastic movie and they even bragged about the perfect special effects.  I would love to hear them to do a new self-aware commentary now that the movie has gone to the bargain bin.  Power Word Kill!

  • Let the Games Begin – A quick look at how Dungeons & Dragons, came about and the longevity it’s enjoyed over the years.  The cast and crew also talk about their exposure to the game which made me quickly lose interest.

  • The Making of Dungeons & Dragons – A talk with Solomon who discusses the challenges of attempting to bring the game to life.

  • Deleted Scenes with Optional Director Commentary – Eleven deleted scenes from the movie with comments from Solomon on why they were cut.  The eleven scenes include: “D&D Creator Cameo,” “Extended Council Meeting,” “In the Sewers,” “Inside the Scroll,” “Into the Thieves’ Guild,” “Extended Guild Fight,” “Norda & Snails,” “Norda & Marina,” “Ridley’s Vision,” “Waiting for Ridley” and an “Alternate Ending.”  While some of these explains some missing narrative, anything that makes this movie longer is a bad thing in my book.

  • Special Effects Deconstruction – Four deconstructions (“Opening Scene,” “Dragons Attack,” “Savina Leads Dragons” and “Dragon Dogfight”) with each stage of their progress are included to show how the special effects evolved.

  • Theatrical Trailer
Dungeons & Dragons – Wrath of the Dragon God (2 out of 5 stars)

  • Audio Commentary - A truly bizarre commentary with Wizards of the Coast D&D special projects manager Edward Stark, Dawn Akemi and John Frank Rosenblum where they speak as their D&D characters and remain in character throughout the track.  This was mostly a waste of time but I did admire their willingness to remain in character and stay true to their class.  I just think it’s a shame that director Geoffrey Lively wasn’t given a chance to record an actual commentary since he worked so hard on the movie.

  • Rolling the Dice: Adapting the Game to the Screen – A look at the movie with the cast and crew where they discuss how they tried to stay true to the game (they even had the game books on set) and how they went about bringing it to life.

  • The Arc: A Conversation with Gary Gygax – A wasted opportunity with D&D creator Gary Gygax where instead of asking about his history with the franchise they just talk about the movie and how he thought it was true to the game.

Final Thoughts

Dungeons & Dragons (3 out of 5 stars)

Dungeons & Dragons – Wrath of the Dragon God (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

While I really didn’t care about the first movie at all, the second movie was true to it’s source and despite being very low budget it still provides some entertainment.  I would recommend it over the first one for anyone that is interested in D&D or likes fantasy movies.  I still have no idea how Solomon at age 19 convinced TSR to give him the rights to make a movie or how his script and directing got past their management.  I think everyone was so excited that a movie was actually being made that they didn’t pay attention to the final result.  I hope they eventually make some more movies since the second one proved that it can still work on a small budget.

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