The imminent release of the film version of The Lord of the Rings in late 2001 seems to have sparked the revival of fantasy as a cinematic genre. Dungeons and Dragons has pre-empted this release and presumably hopes to further cash in on the popularity of the Dungeons and Dragons game upon which the world of the movie is loosely based.
The Empire of Izmer inhabits a world of magic in which social class is dependent on magical ability. The mages control the Empire and quite clearly are much better off than the people without magical ability. This has created some tension between the ruling class and their subjects and as a result, all is not well in the Empire.
One of the more powerful mages, Profion, wishes to seize control of the empire from the current Empress. However, her position is powerful because she holds a staff that gives her the ability to control dragons. In order to overcome this problem he attempts to find another staff that would give him the same control. His first such attempt with the Green Staff fails, as is shown in the opening sequence of the film. Profion goes on to use the Empress' youth and idealistic beliefs1 against her by convincing the Council of Mages that she is unfit to hold the Golden Staff. When the Empress refuses to relinquish the Staff, the Empire goes to war, with the mages on one side and the Empress with her dragons on the other.
Meanwhile, Vildan, one of the mages loyal to the Empress, has discovered an ancient scroll that reports of another mighty staff, the Rod of Savrille, that allows the user to control red dragons. The Empress is advised that possession of this staff would mean that she could surrender the Golden Sceptre to Profion, thus keeping the mages on her side but ensuring that she has the means to battle him if - or rather, when - he makes an overt attempt on the throne. Profion hears of the Rod and sets Damodar, the leader of the imperial army, to find out where the Rod can be found and then to bring it to him. Unfortunately for Profion, his assistant Marina, and two thieves she has apprehended, Ridley and Snails, spot Damodar torturing Vildan. After running from the scene and escaping Damodar, Marina manages to convince Ridley and Snails to help her get the Rod before it falls into the hands of Profion and thus help to avert the war.
Ridley (Justin Whalin) - Ridley is the main character in the film. A thief who was talked into undertaking the quest to find the Rod of Savrille by Marina, partly through the promise of riches and partly because he is trying to impress her, he delights in harassing the mages.
Marina (Zoe McLellan) - Marina is a trainee mage who witnesses Damodar torture Vildan for the whereabouts of the Rod of Savrille. She vows to go on the quest herself, convincing Ridley and Snails to go along, after catching them stealing red-handed.
Damodar (Bruce Payne) - Damodar is the head of the imperial army, one of the few non-mages of the Empire to gain a position of such power and influence. He has decided that Profion is the person he should side with and is helping him gain power. He is a very competent fighter and it is rumoured that his armour is made from the hide of a black dragon.
Snails (Marlon Wayans) - Thief and inseparable companion of Ridley, Snails is not quite so happy with the risks associated with the schemes Ridley comes up with. Snails also provides much of the comic relief in the film.
Profion (Jeremy Irons) - An imposing archmage with his eyes on the throne of Izmer, Profion is after the staffs so that can control the dragons, allowing him to seize control of the Empire without opposition.
Empress Savina (Thora Birch) - Ruler of the Empire of Izmer, Empress Savina holds a hereditary Golden Sceptre and with it the power to control dragons. Her radical opinion that both commoners and mages should be held in equal regard is somewhat contrary to the feelings of most of the Council of Mages.
Norda (Kristin Wilson) - The Empress' loyal policewoman, the elf Norda has served the throne for generations. She is a competent warrior who helps Ridley on his quest for the Rod of Savrille
Elwood (Lee Arenwood) - Marina, Ridley, and Snails bump into Elwood while first fleeing Damodar. He turns out to be quite useful in a fight, although he is only hanging around for the promise of money.
Xilus (Richard O'Brien) - The ever so camp head of the thieves guild, he holds the maze in which the Dragon's Eye can be found.
Vildan (Edward Jewesbury) - Makes a brief appearance as adviser to the Empress but is killed in short order by Damodar.
Azmath (Robert Miano) - A moderate in charge of the Council of Mages, he is nonetheless swayed by Profion's arguments to agree that the Council should remove the Empress' sceptre
Hallvarth (Tom Baker) - He makes a very brief appearance as an elven healer.
The film relies heavily on computer animation2. The dragons, the magic and entire landscapes would be impossible to show without serious quantities of computer time and in most cases they are pulled off very well. With the best scenes it takes a while to realise that what you are looking at is a virtual world, yet some seem little better than paintings. Perhaps the biggest give away for the computer generated imagery in many of the scenes is the lack of people; the sweeping vistas are fine, but you never see any crowds in the panoramic shots.
The architecture is even more impressive than in Gladiator and the effects are far less intrusive than either this or Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace. The magic effects work as well as any gun splattered action movie and the dragons are impressive in the fluidity and apparent naturalness of their movement, but it sometimes seems that the animators were slightly over-impressed by their own work, particularly in the aerial views of the cities.
The story is a standard fantasy plot. In other words, there is a quest for an object that will save the world and in the process the characters mature and change, to become better people. The plot, while being quite unoriginal in terms of the written fantasy genre, is not so widely used in cinema so provides something new for people unacquainted with the myriad fantasy series. It is reasonably well executed as well and makes for decent viewing. For those who may be put off by the 'fantasy' tag, don't worry, Dungeons and Dragons is basically an action film with swords and the occasional bit of magic taking the place of the guns and grenades.
The central characters of Ridley, Snails, Marina and Damodar are well developed and really hold the film together. Of the other characters, Richard O'Brien really stands out in his brief appearance as the wonderfully camp Xilus. Even though he appears for barely 15 minutes, he really steals every scene he's in. There are some very funny parts of the film, particularly Snails' propensity to steal everything he touches, not to mention a few choice one-liners on the part of Damodar, but thankfully the film is not so overloaded with jokes that it becomes a farce.
The special effects should certainly get a mention. Not because they take your breath away about how stunning they are, but because you barely notice them, that they make the extraordinary seem possible, even real. That is the real challenge for people dealing in science fiction and fantasy films.
After watching the film, you wonder if the production team actually watched the whole thing through; surely if they had then they would have noticed some significant problems with it. The development of characters such as Ridley, Marina and Damodar really only go to show the comparative blandness of some of the others. The fact that Empress Savina comes across as wooden rather than regal is probably due to the fact that she really gets very few scenes other than in her official capacity when talking to the Council of Mages. It doesn't really help to have her compared to Queen Amidala in Star Wars: Episode 1 - the Phantom Menace, but the comparison is inevitable given the similarity of deportment, costume and voice, not to mention the situation. This is unfortunate given that many, if not most, of the people that would go to see Dungeons and Dragons are likely to be Star Wars fans as well. Other characters such as the dwarf Elwood and the elf Norda are similarly brushed over and really seem surplus to requirements for the majority - if not all - of the film. This really shows the advantage novels have over cinema in being able to do justice to a number of characters and not just a mere handful.
The script doesn't seem to be in great shape either, it became slightly repetitive at times, particularly when the words 'But you promised' were followed by some variation of 'I lied'.
If you are interested in fantasy and can get to see this film on a large screen, it is probably worth the trip - especially if you can get concession rates. It will work better in a cinema than on a television-sized screen, if only due to the scale of the dragons generating an appropriate sense of awe.
It is an enjoyable movie if you are not expecting much from it. If you do not go in with preconceptions about how the film should look or how closely you feel it should fit to the game or the cartoon series, it is quite possible to enjoy it. It is a pity, though, that some weak characterisations, a weak ending and a tendency to have ignored some points mar the film. These do detract from the enjoyable aspects of the film and leave it a barely above average outing (provided, that is, you are a fantasy fan. If you are not, it may be slightly worse).