Film-makers Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (Game Night) have taken on a truly forbidding Hollywood quest - to transform the world’s most beloved tabletop role-playing game into a big-screen epic, thus freeing it from years in development hell.
Once a cult hobby, Dungeons & Dragons has enjoyed a massive Stranger Things-fuelled resurgence recently. Happily, this high-stakes roll of the 20-sided dice has magicked up a lavish, light-hearted, roaming, romping action comedy - one that banishes memories of the dire 2000 adaptation. Co-writing with Michael Gilio, Goldstein and Daley propel Chris Pine’s wisecracking bard Edgin and his band of medieval misfits into a daring, monster-mashing heist.
The smart decision to combine D&D’s handsome Forbidden Realms setting and lore with a rattling new story ensures that the film feels authentic but accessible. You don’t have to be a veteran Dungeon Master with deep knowledge of the Monster Manual to be rapidly immersed here, as quick-witted Ed and longtime partner Holga the barbarian (an ass-kicking Michelle Rodriguez) bust out of a lengthy prison stay to reclaim Ed’s daughter (Chloe Coleman) from fellow rogue turned lord of the manor Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant).
Springing Kira soon becomes as much caper as quest, especially when Ed and Holga recruit an Ocean’s Eleven-style crew with key skills. Their goal? To crack the impregnable vault of Forge’s Castle Never and nab the magic tablet that will right Ed’s previous wrongdoings.
Daley and Goldstein are obviously aiming to recreate the group vibe of playing D&D; as such, Ed’s young picks are no heroes, just a smart but fallible pair unsure they’re equal to their task. Nervous young sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith) can’t control his wild magic, while Sophia Lillis’ shy shapeshifter Doric (who can morph from mouse to fly to terrifying, throat-tearing owlbear) is a reluctant recruit.
And just like those long D&D tabletop campaigns, the winding plot is littered with obstacles. Hunting for the vital fabled magic helmet that can open Forge’s vault sends the crew scrambling across the Hobbit-y villages, vast green mountains and lava-filled underground caverns of the Realms. The world-building here, shot on lush Irish and Icelandic landscapes and on huge, sumptuous D&D-detailed sets, has Lord of the Rings size and scope. There’s also a Celtic-tinged music score (by Lorne Balfe) that Frodo would feel right at home with.
But the film’s most engaging quality is swapping that Tolkein/Game of Thrones tone of deep seriousness for Princess Bride-style lightness and wit. There’s even positively Monty Python feel to the hilariously inept session of magical corpse-questioning that’s required to reveal the helmet’s historic hiding place.
But although HAT is a slick genre mash-up that moves confidently from Ed’s wisecracking confrontations to camera-swooping chases and crashing sword fights, it never dips into spoof or satire. Goldstein and Daley keep the jeopardy piping hot in punchy action set pieces and Holga’s walloping hand-to-hand combat scenes (no cheaty quick cutting employed). And when Regé-Jean Page’s perfect paladin Xenk helps Ed’s crew out in a crunchy battle with undead wizard assassins and the Realm’s heftiest, hungriest red dragon, the stakes feel high rather than a hoot.
This light touch opens out the characters too, as Simon wrestles with his sorcery shortcomings (Justice Smith brings fretful anxiety and a fine English accent to his performance), while Hugh Grant’s chatty, backstabbing Forge is a worthy addition to his roster of jovial villains (see Paddington 2, The Gentlemen). Chris Pine’s gently self-mocking swagger and winking charm is the film’s secret weapon however, even if the film’s wholesome ‘found family’ theme denies him romantic options. There’s no room for them anyway in the cheerfully overstuffed, episodic plot, which relies on poignant, homely flashbacks for Ed’s sorrow-tinged motivation.
Clocking in at a hefty two and a quarter hours, the winding narrative does feel a tad baggy, even by the story-bloat standards of fantasy cinema. Overfond of cramming in vital backstory using chunky flashbacks or detours (Ed’s thieving years! The death-dealing Red Wizards of Thayn! Holga’s broken marriage – with adorable secret star cameo!), the rollicking script demands the viewer’s close, unflagging attention.
All this attention to detail pays off, however, in the big showdowns, where a skilful mix of practical effects and top-class CGI brings D&D’s signature monsters to life. Fighting for their lives in the High Sun Games arena, Ed and co’s clashes with terrifying tentacled panthers, sharp-toothed Mimics and the human-dissolving Gelatinous Cube are edge-of-the-seat stuff.
Keeping faith with the tabletop D&D ethos, ingenuity and teamwork turn out to be key to tackling Forge’s mighty Red Wizard ally, the dastardly Sofina (Daisy Head). At the heart of both movie and boardgame is that deep sense of community and camaraderie, which bonds the quartet of misfits nicely. Whether Ed’s adventuring crew are franchise material remains to be seen, but this wide, richly drawn new world seems ripe for plundering.