Fantasy is one of the most difficult genres to get right. True, there have been standout examples like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but tales of sword and sorcery have long struggled to compete with the likes of science fiction and horror on the cinematic landscape. Fantasy is my favorite genre, but it’s not my favorite genre by numbers. For a long time, attempts to make a film based on the popular Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game have been in the works, with efforts spanning cartoon series, novels, and regrettably an early 2000s disaster starring Jeremy Irons. So when trailers for Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves dropped last year, my hopes weren’t exactly high and in our most anticipated article for 2023, we said this movie could very easily go either way.
Honor Among Thieves appeared in advertising as another bland attempt to capture the magic of the current superhero trend rather than an earnest attempt to bring viewers into the world of a lively D&D campaign. It also didn’t help that I’m not the biggest fan of Chris Pine, so I quickly wrote the film off. Imagine my shock when the reviews started coming in and they were…how shall I put this…good? After about a week of hearing genuine praise of the lighthearted adventure flick, yesterday I decided to check the film out. I went to AMC, attempting to nab that D20 popcorn holder along the way. The popcorn holder sadly eluded me, but the film everyone was raving about didn’t. Even when the film started, I was still skeptical. That skepticism vanished with a single shot. Early in the film, the heroes are in a prison in an icy tundra. There’s a shot panning past a cell where we see an anthropomorphic snake creature flicking its tongue at a passerby. This creature is known as a Yuan-Ti Abomination, and just so happened to be the race of my first D&D character. From that moment on, I was brought back to my high school and college days, sitting across from friends with nothing but our dice and imaginations.
Honor Among Thieves tells the story of Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine), a bard who escaped from prison with barbarian friend Holga Kilgore (Michelle Rodriguez) in an effort to reunite with his daughter, Kira (Chloe Coleman.) When he finds a former member of his crew Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant) has poisoned her against him, he partners up with an old friend and sorcerer Simon Aumar (Justice Smith), and a tiefling druid named Doric (Sophia Lillis) to free her. Freeing her will be no easy task, as she’s held in a highly fortified castle that’s under the guard of Forge’s advisor Sofina (Daisy Head), a sorcerer with a sinister secret. Their only hope of saving Kira is to find a way to infiltrate the castle during a citywide celebration where the country’s most affluent citizens will be present, creating a perfect opening for them to slip on through.
Notice something about this plot? It’s actually a pretty contained adventure. One of the major trappings of fantasy is many think it always has to deal with great wars or the destruction of civilizations. Admittedly this is something we often see in the most popular fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Willow, DragonLance, and so forth. To do a smaller-scale adventure seems to have escaped a lot of fantasy writers, and for whatever reason is often not considered in the genre. Right away that Honor Among Thieves tells a pretty small-scale story intrigued me.
Fear not though. Just because the story is small-scale doesn’t mean it isn’t brimming over with creativity. One of the major disappointments of the Jeremy Irons film was despite its title, the world they created bore little resemblance to the world of D&D, with none of the recognizable places, names, and creatures appearing. Honor Among Thieves on the other hand fully immerses the audience in the world of D&D, specifically the popular Forgotten Realms campaign setting, which just so happens to be the setting I played the most. The film takes viewers on a tour of many familiar places and mingles our heroes amongst numerous adversaries many have encountered on the tabletop battlefield. Unlike the Irons film, it seemed every moment there was another familiar face or place that brought back my memories.
Of course, this wouldn’t matter if the story and characters weren’t also fun. Rest assured, there is a lot to love about Honor Among Thieves. A big worry I had was that this would be an attempt to capture the spirit of an MCU film, specifically the rapid-fire humor of Guardians of the Galaxy. Now I’m not trying to take a dig at superhero flicks. I just want something different every so often. Fortunately, Honor Among Thieves has a sense of humor all its own, and really captures the joy of a good campaign with some solid players. Darvis is the plucky, wise-cracking hero, but he never becomes overbearing and his story is informed by a genuine desire to reunite with Kira. Kilgore is tough and ready to mess up her opponents, but has a strong sense of loyalty to her friends and also has a deep affection for Kira. Aumar is the opposite of the Gandalf archetype in that he’s the youngest and least experienced of the group, yet his magic is essential for the party’s success. Out of all the cast, Doric is perhaps the least developed, but the film still gives her plenty to do, in particular with her shapeshifting ability which is used in a number of imaginative ways.
The film also has a number of fun characters for the heroes to contend with. Grant’s Forge is a very enjoyable villain who manages to be incredibly funny and devilishly slimy at the same time. Daisy Head’s character of Sofina, a Necromancer, offsets the comedy from Grant and crafts a genuinely frightening villain for the characters to do battle with. Rege-Jean Page is a joy as Xenk Yendar, a paladin who balances being tough, compassionate, and socially aloof with effortless ease.
Speaking of which, the film uses its setting in a number of creative ways, managing to stay completely consistent with the world and its rules. A major issue with a lot of fantasy is that the world doesn’t follow a consistent set of rules, especially when it comes to magic. Thieves manage to keep the logic of its world internally consistent and use those internal rules to get the heroes out of numerous scrapes in incredibly creative ways. Then there’s the world itself. The film takes full advantage of the Forgotten Realms setting, a place brimming over with fascinating and diverse locations like bustling cities to treacherous caverns, ancient battlefields, and peaceful forests. The sheer variety of the Forgotten Realms setting lends itself well to movies. Every scene has its own atmosphere, which lends itself well to crafting many exciting set pieces. Even if you don’t play D&D, there’s a lot to enjoy about this setting.
The film definitely has the lion’s share of humor and jokes, but they’re never overplayed or ill-timed. One of the reasons the humor works is it’s based largely on the world itself rather than simple quips. The jokes at first may seem niche, but the film manages to help the audience understand the world so well, they’ll have no trouble figuring out the punchlines, and laughing just as hard as any veteran D&D player would. Better yet, Honor Among Thieves also understands the gravity of the story despite its more lighthearted tone. The humor is never ill-timed and never intrudes on moments meant to be more emotionally impactful, creating a film that’s able to double you over with laughter one moment, such as during a hilarious prison break, and break your heart the next, such as when a character reconciles with an old flame that didn’t work out. There are even times when the film is downright scary, like when a character will flashback to when their home was besieged by users of the dark arts. At times the film will use these elements to clash with each other, such as a moody visit to an ancient graveyard, offset by the characters’ bumbling attempts to question various corpses. There are so many ways this could have come apart, but there’s never a moment where it doesn’t work.
What we’re left with is a relatively small-scale story played out by a group of quirky, diverse heroes with a sprawling world as its backdrop. My love of D&D aside, Honor Among Thieves is just a fun, well made and never-dull fantasy film, and is easily one of the best the genre has ever produced in movies. The Forgotten Realms setting only makes something that already works very well that much better, and is a fantastic look at just why D&D is so much fun. Things will go wrong, but they’ll go wrong in surprising and often hilarious ways. Chances are if you wonder why characters aren’t doing a certain thing, they’ll figure it out in the next scene. Better yet, the characters will think of something that never occurred to them, leaving the audience to throw their hands up and say “Of course!” In essence, that’s one of the things that makes Dungeons & Dragons so special is the creative ways the players navigate the world. That the film is able to communicate that so well even for folks who never once played the game is one of its greatest virtues as a movie.
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