In the earliest decades of Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy-loving role players often hid their passion for the game. To the dominant culture, they were dweebs, then Satanists, then back to dweebs. Things changed after Jon Favreau kick-started the modern Marvel franchise in the summer of 2008 and, during the “Iron Man” promotional tour, publicly credited his years spinning tales about goblins and lizardfolk for teaching him to create “this modular, mythic environment where people can play in it.” Since then, D&D fans like James Gunn, Joss Whedon and the Russo Brothers have transformed the multiplex into their rec room where magical supersquads embark on perpetual campaigns. They are the dominant culture — and filmgoers who have never clutched a 20-sided icosahedron are subject to their throw of the dice.
“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” an amiable romp by the directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, who co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Gilio, comes clattering along just as the public has grown weary of caring about gewgaws with names like the monocle of Bagthalos. It’s late to its own party with good reason. The game hinges on cooperation and imagination — on the joy of friends inventing a creative way to trap an orc — and how in Hextor does that translate to sitting passively before a screen?
After a decade in development, the project that made it to the screen is a noisy, pixelated smash-and-zap that does manage to capture the spirit of play. The story starts with a silver-tongued bard named Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine), a divorced barbarian named Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez) and a simple challenge. Edgin and Holga must escape a fortified tower — a donjon in Old French, before the English redefined dungeon as someplace underground — to reunite with Edgin’s daughter, Kira (Chloe Coleman). When they learn that Kira is under the thrall of a con man (Hugh Grant) who is himself under the thrall of a wizard (Daisy Head), our heroes’ gang expands to include an anti-establishment druid (Sophia Lillis) and a defeatist sorcerer (Justice Smith). Like the game, the team’s initial mission rapidly spirals into detours; the goal is less interesting than the brainstorming sessions that get them to the finish.
Having sat in on my share of D&D campaigns, my personal idea of purgatory is five people debating whether to open a door. Luckily, the film moves faster. Castles, volcanoes and yurts — oh my — whiz past at a clip that would make a dice-roller drool. Plans are quickly made and just as quickly fail. “This is what we do!” Edgin yelps. “We pivot!”
Can a C.G.I.-laden juggernaut evoke the freedom of improv? Not really — though there is a nifty one-shot chase sequence where Lillis’ druid hastily shape-shifts among a housefly, a mouse, a cat and a deer. Daley, a former child actor, once played the nerd on the TV show “Freaks and Geeks” who convinced James Franco’s character that D&D is cool because you can crack jokes and fight dragons. That remains the height of his ambition. There’s no momentum behind the father-daughter story line, so the closer the plot lurches toward all those hugs and tears, the more excuses the cinematographer Barry Peterson seizes to send the camera on a loop-de-loop. I’d rather cheer for a kooky blockbuster that’s all fiascos, like the midpoint Monty Python-esque sequence where the crew botches the resurrection and interrogation of craggy old corpses. Compared to that, the emotional climax is a bowl of cold groats.
The film, produced in part by Hasbro, makes no direct reference to the actual game outside the frame. Yet its mechanics are felt in ways both affectionate and sarcastic. During one brawl, the editor Dan Lebental cuts again and again to Edgin stuck on the sidelines struggling to abrade his rope cuffs. You can sense the character’s frustration to be rolling ones and twos. Later, when Regé-Jean Page strides into the action as a humorless, hyper-competent paladin, Goldstein and Daley permit our eyes to glaze over as he drones on about arcana that’s impossible to absorb. Instead, we snicker as Page solemnly cautions us against “ill-gotten booty.”
For a film about collaboration, the actors aren’t in tonal agreement about the movie they’re in. Grant’s commitment to his dastardly rogue barely goes beyond his cravat — he’d rather guffaw than feign gravitas. By the time a multiple Oscar nominee cameos in a scene played like a Noah Baumbach marital drama, you might wonder if these personality swings are the point? Now that fantasy adventures aren’t dweebs-only, there’s room at the table for all types.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
Rated PG-13 for cartoonish violence and mild profanity. Running time: 2 hours 14 minutes. In theaters.