Only make believe
Dungeons & Dragons is an almost perfect impersonation of a real film
Dungeons & Dragons opens Dec. 8. ?That statement alone is probably enough to mobilize a pretty big chunk of the movie-going audience, by force of nostalgia, if nothing else. But the magnitude of the Dungeons & Dragons phenomenon may have eluded you if you spent your Green Youth rushing and passing, or jumping up and down in a short skirt on behalf of those rushing and passing, or other such vital adolescent activities without which the very fabric of our great democracy might crumble. So in deference to those readers who wouldn't know a Bugbear from a Beholder if it bit them on the ass, a little background info is probably in order, lest they miss this profound moment in pop culture history.
First unleashed upon an unsuspecting America by arch-nerd and counter-culture capitalist demi-genius Gary Gygax in 1974, Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D to those in the know), is the archetypical role-playing game, (or RPG, to same). The conceptual prototype for many interactive offspring in the digital age, D&D is basically a highly structured version of "make-believe." You get together with your buddies and step into the shoes of a "character" (elves, dwarves, wizards and so on) relevant to the game's fantastical setting. Then you eat lots of junk food while engaging in a sort of communal storytelling, maneuvering your surrogate through all sorts of adventures impossible (or at least illegal) in the waking world, such as fighting monsters, navigating death-trap mazes and hacking people to bits.
Throughout the late '70s and early '80s, D&D, and its myriad clones, companions and competitors, formed a crucial cultural nexus for countless thousands of people, mostly middle-class adolescent guys, a demographic that during the same period became the most desirable target of the film industry. A literate low-tech fusion of gambling, adolescent wish fulfillment and amateur theater, gaming spawned novels and networks of fans. Scholars and literati penned learned treatises on the sociology, psychology and mythology of it all; parents and educators decried it as satanic and bemoaned their youngsters spending weekends reading and playing RPGs instead of cow tipping and playing drunken Hide the Weasel like normal kids.
Sure, back then, being a player was about as cool as a chronic skin disease or being the only Amish kid in Inner City High School, but at least the game was a household name.
But that was a long time ago, and one has to wonder if, in the year 2000, the people who bankrolled first-time director Courtney Solomon's dream project (he spent 10 years stumping for the film) aren't at least a little worried about being a decade late and a few dragons short. Gaming culture is still around, but it has been transformed, and despite a snazzy ad campaign and state-of-the-art digital effects, D&D might smell to some consumers like Rubik's Cube — The Movie.
Which would be a shame. Not that there is that much more to Solomon's film than that. In fact, the picture's great, and actually only strength, is how true it is to the slightly screwball role-playing experience — one in which individual fantasy lines tangle and seldom merge into a coherent collective trajectory. As if everyone had something slightly different in mind and the director were trying to cobble it together on the fly, Dungeons & Dragons feels like a totally earnest approximation, an almost perfect impersonation of a real movie.
The most obvious instance is D&D's pretend plot and make-believe screenplay, which might have been written by rolling dice and picking pages out of the Drama and Dialogue Scriptmaster's Guide — a confused mass of episodic twaddle about a plucky thief (Justin Whalen, best known as Jimmie Olsen in Lois & Clark) who must thwart a mad magician (Jeremy Irons) attempting to seize the throne of a fairy-tale empress, played by the festively attired but sleepy Thora Birch. In the appropriately arbitrary company of a sassy student mage, a blustery "dwarf," and his hysterical, black sidekick, Snails (Marlon Wayans), our hero goes places and does stuff and gets a magic sword and tackles one non-sequitur nemesis after another with a blissful disregard for any conventional narrative structure. None of it makes a shred of sense in the long run, but it's generally fun while it's happening.
The faux feeling extends to the look of the film. The camera direction is gleefully inept, dominated by long "ain't-that-cool?" takes, the digital effects are just not quite good enough to ever let us forget that they are just digital effects, and the costumes look like the results of a high-speed collision of a fetish shop and the Ren-Fest. Even the actors seem to be faking it, playfully overplaying their paper-thin parts like the most inept of dinner-theater thespians. Wayans does Snails with a blubbering, exaggeration that makes J.J. Walker look like Sydney Poitier, and the normally dignified Irons charges every one of his inadvertently hilarious lines with so much malevolent zeal that he appears on the verge of abandoning elocution entirely and just up and biting someone.
But somehow the whole rickety affair fits together so poorly that it becomes impossible to hold all the individual inconsistencies against it. It never evokes the epic magical feel of fantasy classics like Star Wars or the Sinbad movies, or for that matter the dark candyland of The Wizard of Oz and other Grimm fairytale films, but there is something contagious about how thrilled Dungeons & Dragons is with itself.
By the time the movie meanders its way to the big dragon dogfight finale (you can almost hear the director's squeals of delight), it's hard not to root for such an improbable underdog of a movie. Especially since, like it's prototype, it's ultimately just a game.