DirectorJonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley
Release Date(s)2023 (May 30, 2023)
Studio(s)Hasbro/Entertainment One (Paramount Pictures)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: B+
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves wasn’t the first attempt to adapt the legendary roleplaying game into a feature film, but it is the first one to fully grasp the true appeal of the source material. In the decades since Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson unleashed their fantasy roleplaying system on an unsuspecting public, a vast amount of gaming lore has been developed by other creators that provides myriad different settings, monsters, and races from which to choose. The sky’s the limit in terms of ingredients that could be used to craft a cinematic story, yet there’s no getting around the fact that taken on its own, most of it still qualifies as generic Tolkien-inspired fantasy. What sets Dungeons & Dragons apart isn’t the lore, but rather the freedom that the system offers to players and Dungeon Masters in order to choose their own adventures. The genius of Honor Among Thieves is that it never loses sight of the fact that it’s about the game, not the setting. The advertising campaign for the first Dungeons & Dragons film in 2000 went to great pains to point out to audiences that “You realize this is no game.” As taglines went, that was a huge mistake, because that’s exactly what Dungeons & Dragons is.
Honor Among Thieves, on the other hand, was created by gamers, for gamers, but in a way that can still offer broad appeal to anyone who isn’t one. It doesn’t just celebrate the fantasy worlds of Dungeons & Dragons; it also celebrates the experience of actually playing a Dungeons & Dragons game. Yet it does so without resorting to the obvious postmodern Jumanji solution of featuring a set of real-world players who are drawn into an alternate universe. Instead, it’s as if a real gaming session has been brought to life, with all of the quirks of the individual players and the DM becoming an active part of the story (for good or for ill).
The screenplay by directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (along with Michal Gilio) puts together a party consisting of the following characters: a Bard named Elgin (Chris Pine), his Barbarian friend Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), the Sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith), the Druid Doric (Sophia Lillis), and their reluctant companion, a Paladin named Xenk (Regé-Jean Page). They’re all on a quest to rescue Edgin’s daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman) from the clutches of their old Rogue friend Forge (Hugh Grant). Forge has the Red Wizard Sofina (Daisy Head) at his side as a protector, but he doesn’t fully grasp the depths of her own dastardly plans. All of that is pretty standard fantasy material, but as in any gaming session, the devil’s in the details with Honor Among Thieves.
While the script does offer a loose overarching narrative to tie everything together, most of the film consists of a series of barely connected subquests, each of them acting as a self-contained adventure. In the best Dungeons & Dragons tradition, they’re all separated by journeys of many, many miles, but all of those trips are dispensed with in mere seconds of screen time (there’s a good reason why most computer RPGs offer some form of a fast travel option). Most importantly, the party in this campaign obviously consists of players with varying levels of gaming experience, and that’s the secret sauce that makes Honor Among Thieves so much fun. For example, Xenk is controlled by a dedicated roleplayer who refuses to break character at any time. While he’s willing to help the group periodically, he won’t really join them because he understands that the Lawful Good alignment of his character simply won’t work with the Chaotic nature of the party’s leadership.
That chaos is perfectly embodied by Edgin, who’s run by the ultimate newbie who really doesn’t yet deserve his place at the table. He has no clue about what a Bard actually is, and he obviously hasn’t even bothered to look at his character sheet once during the entire session. Bards are versatile characters who can possess both combat skills and magical abilities, using their music to weave spells that can rally their allies or demoralize their foes. Edgin, on the other hand, sings and makes plans—and he doesn’t do either of those particularly well. The rest of the players are forced to work around him, and the way that Holga, Simon, Doric, and Xenk deal with him should be familiar to anyone who’s had to help carry a new player to keep the game moving forward. Yet like the best of newbs, he does learn as he goes along, and that’s mirrored by Edgin’s eventual growth as a character.
Daley, Goldstein, and Gilio wisely opted to keep all of party members as either human or demihumans, with only the Half-Elf Simon and the Tiefling Doric falling into the latter category. That helps with viewer identification for those who may be unfamiliar with the game. Other playable races like the Aarakocra, Tabaxi, and Dragonborn are pushed to the margins, but they’re still present in order to delight veteran players. Those same vets will also be happy to see that Honor Among Thieves heartily leans into the weirder aspects of Dungeons & Dragons lore. There are Owlbears, Mimics, Displacer Beasts, Intellect Devourers, Gelatinous Cubes, and more (even Rust Monsters make a brief appearance). Of course, it wouldn’t be Dungeons & Dragons if a dragon didn’t show up eventually, but the filmmakers subverted expectations in that regard by making a pretty offbeat choice out of the Monster Manual (one that’s best left as a surprise for the uninitiated).
Honor Among Thieves successfully walks a very fine tightrope between acknowledging the inherent silliness of some of these aspects of Dungeons & Dragons lore, including the purely arbitrary nature of the game’s rules, while still affectionately embracing every last bit of the overall experience. It’s an open comedy, but it’s not a parody in any sense of the term. Instead, it’s a love letter to the genre that’s not afraid to poke fun at itself, and every single member of the cast & crew embraced that quest enthusiastically (Rodriguez in particular had a field day). As a result, it’s a film that will resonate with experienced players, yet it’s still entertaining enough for anyone who’s never sat on either side of a Dungeon Masters’ screen. That might have been the most difficult balancing act of all, but Honor Among Thieves manages to pull it off with style.
Cinematographer Barry Peterson captured Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves digitally at 4.5K resolution in ARRIRAW format using ARRI ALEXA LF and ARRI ALEXA Mini LF cameras with Panavision T-series anamorphic lenses. Post-production work was completed as a 4K Digital Intermediate, framed at 2.39:1 for its theatrical release. It’s digital cinematography that embraces all of the advantages of the technology without bothering to add any intentional artifacts to mimic (no pun intended) the look of film. Everything is crisp and clear, with perhaps just a touch of noise visible in a few shots, but that’s minimal. Fine textures like the intricate details on the costumes are nicely rendered, even in the omnipresent composite shots. That extends to the CGI as well—there are some impressively detailed digital matte paintings in the backgrounds of many shots. The High Dynamic Range grade (both Dolby Vision and HDR10 are included on the disc) enhances the clarity of the image by strengthening the contrast range, and it also provides a wealth of expanded color information. There are a few nighttime sequences that have flatter contrast and elevated black levels, but that appears to be how they were captured. Otherwise, the blacks are deep and true, with plenty of glittering highlights on the other end of the spectrum. The Forgotten Realms may have its fair share of dank and gloomy environments, but there’s nothing gloomy about this near-reference quality presentation.
Primary audio is offered in an English Dolby Atmos (7.1 Dolby TrueHD compatible) mix that’s no less demo-worthy. It’s a lively, energetic track, and the sound designers waste no time in announcing their willingness to use the overhead channels during the opening scene, when a cart carrying a prisoner rolls right over the camera. They don’t let up after that, either, with one of Simon’s fizzled spells providing a creative opportunity to invert the entire soundstage, and when the camera is placed inside some graves that are being opened later in the film, the sounds of the casket lids place the viewer right alongside them. There’s a consistent sense of immersion throughout, and when the action kicks in, the dynamics follow suit, with some appropriately deep bass. Anyone who wants to show off their multichannel Atmos system to their friends or family should have this disc near the top of the pile. (Just be aware of the fact that you may have to nudge the volume up a bit).
Additional audio options include English audio description, plus Spanish (Spain), Spanish (Latin America), French, French (Canada), Italian, and Japanese, all in 5.1 Dolby Digital. Subtitle options include, English, English SDH, Cantonese, Czech, Danish, Spanish (Spain), Spanish (Latin America), French, French (Canada), Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Dutch, Norwegian, Polish, Simplified Chinese, Slovak, Finnish, and Swedish.
Paramount’s 4K Ultra HD release of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves includes a slipcover and Digital code on a paper insert tucked inside the case, but it doesn’t include a Blu-ray copy of the film. Interestingly enough, the separate Blu-ray release that Paramount is offering doesn’t have three of the featurettes listed below—they’re exclusive to UHD. The following extras are included on this UHD version, all of them in HD:
- From Dice to Dragons: Honoring the Lore (11:15)
- Rogue’s Gallery: The Heroes of Dungeons & Dragons (11:24)
- Fantastic Foes (7:03)
- The Bestiary (9:21)
- Forging the Forgotten Realms (8:07)
- Broadswords, Battleaxes & Badass Brawls (8:40)
- Gag Reel (6:51)
- Deleted and Extended Scenes
- Gorg’s Arrival (:55)
- Ice Breaker (1:31)
- Harassing Holga (1:09)
- Eating Ash (:14)
- Harper’s Sanctuary (:29)
- Corpse 6 (6:15)
Aside from the Gag Reel and Deleted Scenes, the rest are all studio-produced EPK material, but they do have just a bit more irreverence to them than what’s typical for studio fare. They offer behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with all of the primary cast members, as well as Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Michael Gilio, producer Jeremy Latcham, visual effect supervisor Ben Snow, production designer Ray Chan, weapon master Tommy Dunne, and stunt coordinators Georgi Manchev & Diyan Hristov. From Dice to Dragons provides some backstory about the conception and production of the film; Rogue’s Gallery examines the characters that form the adventuring party; Fantastic Foes flips the tale of the tape to the villains; The Bestiary provides a catalogue of some of the classic monsters and other creatures featured in the film; Forging the Forgotten Realms covers the locations and production design; and Broadswords looks at the stunt work and choreography. The directors stress that despite the comic spin in Honor Among Thieves, they weren’t spoofing the genre, and they wanted to convey the feeling of playing the game without breaking the fourth wall. They also explain that that they had the cast sit down and play Dungeons & Dragons together while roleplaying their characters, rather than doing a traditional table read, in order to get them into the spirt of the proceedings. Everyone involved appears to have had a great time making the film, and they seem to enjoy talking about the experience, too—once again, Michelle Rodriguez is always an enthusiastic participant.
The Gag Reel is a cut above the standard collection of actors mugging for the camera after flubbing a line, and it demonstrates the camaraderie that everyone had on set. There are a few genuinely amusing moments, and there’s also a collection of outtakes of Chris Pine ad-libbing his song going dreadfully wrong while Simon is casting Major Image. The Deleted Scenes are mostly scene extensions, with only Harassing Holga having been completely removed from the final cut. None of them offer anything that would have been missed, although there’s a few more glimpses of Dungeons & Dragons lore that players will appreciate. The final scene is the most curious (and lengthiest) one, and while it clearly was never intended to be included in the film as shot, it’s interesting to speculate about exactly what the directors had in mind for it (this is one case where some optional commentary would have been nice).
As usual, the featurettes would have been better served if they had been edited together into a single making-of documentary, but there’s still a fair amount of depth to them despite their brevity. A commentary track or an annotation track would have also been a helpful way to identify all of the Dungeons & Dragons arcana on display in the film. It’s still a decent collection of extras that should help newcomers understand what’s happening in Honor Among Thieves, but there’s some fun details included for veterans as well (if you’re wondering which volcano appears in the background of one shot, production designer Ray Chan drops a major hint). In any event, the audio and video quality of this 4K presentation speaks for itself, so even if you’re not interested in the behind-the-scenes stories, it’s still a worthy demo disc to add to your collection—and it doesn’t hurt that the film itself is more fun than a barrel of Owlbears.
- Stephen Bjork