I convey to you now a tale of sorcery, mysticism and overacting; a story begot from the still-hot embers of other sagas sans their sanction. We shall begin in the legendary village of the Wood of Holly: a vibrant and rich community, wherein the likes of Lord Lucas and Sir Spielberg reigned — having brought excitement to the lives of many a basement dweller through their accounts of daring, dashing heroes and the highly sought after “figures of action.” Across the seas, in other parts of the magical kingdom of Fictionalis, bards Tolkien and Rowling had amassed legions of magic-wielding warriors via long-admired things known as “books.” This was the way things had been for many decades. Alas, there were certain, less-talented storytellers that grew envious of their deeds and royalties…
Back in 2000, I was managing a video store. I recall a rather “off” customer of mine — whom I had known of since high school — breathlessly ranting about the upcoming big-screen adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons. Although I had been born a geek myself (or perhaps I’m a nerd…or maybe I’m a dork — I guess it all depends on your stance in society), I had never developed a passion for role-playing games like many of my former schoolmates had. I focused on the art of film instead; and, as my ex-educational colleague told me that he “smelled Oscar” emitting from this Dungeons & Dragons movie, my finely-tuned instincts told me that this flick was going to carry with it an unparalleled stench of another kind.
However, I never really bothered checking the movie out…until recently that is. And, a good eleven years after its original theatrical release, Dungeons & Dragons still stinks to high heaven.
Made at a time when CGI was still in its infancy and filmmakers from all aspects of the film industry were fighting to create the next best franchise, Dungeons & Dragons should forever serve as some sort of mighty and resilient monument; one that reminds potential producers how truly bad a movie can wind up being — especially when constructed by people with no talent whatsoever. Using very little (if anything) from its RPG origins, the story instead liberally and unabashedly steals from the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, as well as tapping into the realms of the as-yet-unfilmed Harry Potter and The Lord Of The Rings novels for its characters, segments and predicaments (amongst other flicks). And, if the story wasn’t unoriginally-bad enough to begin with, the film’s backers hired one of the most laughable casts ever assembled.
Overacting in such a manner that his very pores begin to excrete ham, Jeremy Irons gets top-billing here as a deviously-delirious wizard who hopes to overthrow his land’s Empress, the one and only Thora Birch (who is light-years away from her performance in Ghost World and, sadly, not nekkid like she was in American Beauty) with dragons. Or something like that. Unfortunately, his plans to steal a map that will enable him to possess some mighty artifact doohickey fall into the hands of two young thieves: pretty-boy Justin Whalin and his whiny and utterly annoying life partner, Marlon Wayans. The thieves take it on the lam (or lamb, perhaps, considering the unmistakable Renaissance Fair odor the film carries with it whenever these clowns are onscreen).
Joining our courageous young lads in their quest for an innovative plot are a dwarf (Lee Arenberg) who gets absolutely no introduction whatsoever (and who seems to appear out of nowhere in certain scenes due to some truly awful editing), an elf tracker (Kristen Wilson), and apprentice mage Zoe McLellan — whose nubile young womany bits just might tempt poor Justin to switch sides. But of course no portrayal in this epically-awful disaster of a film can compare to that of overactor extraordinaire, Bruce Payne. Donning a questionable shade of glow-in-the-dark light blue lipstick (it just doesn’t go with your complexion, buddy!), Payne lives up to his surname throughout the whole picture, embodying every villainous element that all archenemies and second-banana rogues have ever held in the entire history of moving pictures anywhere.
But it doesn’t stop there, folks. Oh, no. Even the surreal world of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth doesn’t escape the ever-plagiaristic eyes of Dungeons & Dragons. Witness the immensely unforgettable moment wherein young Whalin attempts to retrieve a pretty rock from the death trap-laden maze (with an open-ceiling?) of Rocky Horror creator Richard O’Brien, who fills in for David Bowie in his most flamboyantly-fantastic performance since Shock Treatment. Now combine all of this rubbish with some truly crappy CGI, eye candy (Birch, McLellan, Wilson, Irons, etc.) that warrants a six-year bout of abstinence, a lackluster orchestra score, an utter lack of emotion from characters and viewers alike (except for the part where Bruce Payne kills Marlon Wayans — which results in unbridled joy from all), and a slew of embarrassing performances from even the most menial of performers (to say nothing of the combination of British and Californian accents).
The end result: one of the many fine films that would eventually lead to the fall of New Line Cinema — and a thoroughly mortifying experience overall for all who have the misfortune of beholding it.
And yet, somebody thought this box-office flop needed a sequel.
Granted, the follow-up feature, Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath Of The Dragon God, is twenty-times better than the original — but it’s still rather dumb. In it, Bruce Payne’s character (minus the lipstick) returns from the hoary netherworld to inflict more trouble for the good people of whatever the hell the name of the fictional kingdom in the series is. This time, though, he’s thwarted by a retired soldier (Mark Dymond), his mage wife (Clemency Burton-Hill) and a ragtag group of warriors. Really, that’s it in a nutshell. While it may be a lot easier to stomach than the first, it’s still not a very remarkable achievement: I made it about halfway through the flick before I realized I had seen it before when it first hit DVD. On the plus side, though, all of the actors onboard seemed to have received the memo about “consistent accents from all” (the modestly-budgeted project was filmed in Eastern Europe, using a mostly-British cast for its lead actors).
Although I completely understand Warner’s need to make certain older catalogue titles available on Blu-ray, I really wonder why they’d waste valuable plastic producing this release en masse. There are plenty of other, superior fantasy flicks out there that haven’t even seen the digital light of day period — and the fact that both D&D-based movies are included in this one set still probably won’t impel fans of the films (where applicable) to buy it, no matter how cheap it is. Additionally, the 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC HD transfer on the first film isn’t all that hot: it’s quite grainy (particularly in the darker scenes), and the contrast and detail are so-so — but at least the colors are bright enough to bring out the gaudy even more than ever before!
The second flick, on the other hand, boasts a slightly-improved transfer. That said, however, the palette of the shot-on-video movie is pretty dreary to begin with, and the picture is pretty inert overall. But hey, at least the detail is a’ight. Sound-wise, both entries have a tame DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio soundtrack at their helm (the first film also features an optional French Dolby Digital 5.1 mix), neither of which really succeed in grabbing you by any sort of body part or organ whatsoever — but they suffice quite well when you compare them to what you’re seeing onscreen. English (SDH), French and Spanish subtitles are included.
If you’ve seen the original movies in their original SD-DVD incarnations, then you have probably seen the assortment of Special Features that lie in wait for you here. The same collection of audio commentaries that range from bittersweet to unbearable, a couple of behind-the-scenes featurettes and a couple of Deleted Scenes are included with this HD duo. The best part of all these Extras is seeing how truly humiliated Jeremy Irons was: one snipped clip (which features a cameo by one of the D&D creators) has the actor scream out a line at the top of his lungs, only to boorishly wander off the set whilst rolling his eyes.
But, hey, it serves him right.
So, anyway, if you want flying reptiles, pick up How To Train Your Dragon or Q. If you want dungeons, go to a BDSM site. Or, if you’re really desperate, pick up Dungeons & Dragons: 2-Movie Collection.