For such a successful game, it’s funny how unsuccessful the (official) D&D movies have been. Part of it is probably just popular disdain of gaming culture. Most of it, though, is probably the fault of the first D&D movie. It is pretty unrelentingly terrible. Bad dialogue, bad plotting, plot holes, clumsy inclusion of RPG tropes, some really pretty repellent messages if you think much about it… It has some redeeming qualities, but the overall impression is just bad.
I’ve watched a bit of the third movie, and it’s really quite awful. They decided to use evil main characters, which could be interesting, but it’s clear that the movie itself is pushing a rather slimy agenda. I stopped watching after a completely gratuitous sex scene.
What I really want to talk about, though, is the second movie, Wrath of the Dragon God. Unfortunately, the second movie seems to have been polluted by the reputation of the first one. Unfortunate, because the second movie is actually pretty good. Low budget, to be sure, but it’s an improvement over the first one in almost every way:
- The story is not only coherent, it’s kind of clever in places. Finding the goblin village ransacked, the mirror trap and the lich’s betrayal are all creative moments. Some things happen slowly and dramatically; others happen suddenly, keeping a fresh sense of pace.
- All the characters get to contribute something important, and there’s a good amount of character development. The women characters have as much agency as the men. (Indeed, Melora’s story is just as important as Berek’s.)
- At the same time, the movie dares to kill primary characters, giving a sense of real danger.
- Some of the dialogue is pretty good. The thief, especially, gets some good lines, such as taunting the barbarian about what drove her brother insane at the Barrier Peaks, and getting the rest of the party to look away while he handles a not-actually-complex device.
The movie also has a lot of relatively subtle inclusion of D&D tropes, such as that offhand mention of the Barrier Peaks, and how the mage can’t teleport somewhere because she’s never seen it. It makes the D&D meta-setting make a fair amount of sense, which is something of a feat.
The commentary track by three PCs is inspired, if not perfectly executed. It’s basically D&D characters lampooning the exploits of the D&D characters onscreen. It’s a little unclear what tone they’re going for: mockery or sincere admiration? But having D&D characters do an MST3K track for a D&D movie is at least a great concept.
Another of the special features is a fairly long talk with Gary Gygax talking about the movie. He mostly just praises it, in a way that feels more like an ad than an interview, but he still gives a few insightful comments on the movie. And there’s a making-of featurette that shows how much they studied D&D while making the film; the actors used the PHB and other books as direct reference materials to understand how the world and their characters were supposed to interact.
All in all, I’d say that not only is Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God the best of the three D&D movies, it’s actually a pretty good movie overall. If you’re looking for an inspirational fantasy movie and watching Lord of the Rings again isn’t cutting it, D&D 2 is not a bad choice. It certainly doesn’t deserve the spillover disdain that it gets from the rest of the franchise.