Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves review – D&D movie is a forgettable story in a fantastic, faithful world
Practical effects and lore true to the RPG shine over derivative writing and bland characters.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is a film that’s at war with itself. On the one hand, it depicts the world of the tabletop roleplaying game with a level of detail fans have never seen before. On the other, its plot and characters are disappointingly uninspiring and derivative. Whenever the D&D movie is trying to be a Dungeons & Dragons movie it’s fantastic. However, its messy storyline, lack of meaningful themes and bland characters let it down.
Honor Among Thieves stars Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez as professional bard Edgin Darvis and axe-wielder Holga la Barbare, who were once part of a band of criminals who carried out heists alongside sorcerer Simon Aumar (Justice Smith) and cunning Forge Fletcher (Hugh Grant). After Edgin agrees to a particularly dangerous job in the hope of acquiring an artefact that would enable him to resurrect his deceased wife, the group are captured and/or scattered to the winds. After breaking out of prison – in an undeniably fun scene involving an aarakocra, one of D&D’s bird people – both Edgin and Holga must gather a new team to steal the artefact once again and regain the trust of Edgin’s daughter.
The plot of Honor Among Thieves is simultaneously by-the-numbers and off-the-wall, with its overall beats being extremely predictable but specific story turns arriving unexpectedly. It feels like a rushed tour around some of the Forgotten Realms’ most iconic locations, with the team – who are eventually joined by Simon and newbie druid Doric (Sophia Lillis) – careening from one place to another at breakneck speed. Whilst it’s satisfying to see some of the fantasy RPG’s most beloved places – including Neverwinter and the Underdark - recreated with enough detail that fans will instantly recognise them, it’s frustrating as a moviegoer to be thrust from one place to another without much clue as to why it’s happening.
Some characters in Honor Among Thieves receive arcs that feel painfully underdeveloped.
This unrelenting speed makes Honor Among Thieves feel more like a rollercoaster ride than a film, which is an issue that a lot of blockbuster films have been stumbling into in the last five years or so. Besides the viewers’ understanding of the plot, what really suffers as a result of the film’s fast pacing are its characters. With so few moments to actually sit down, breathe and get to know them, the characters come across as paper-thin examples of tropes we’ve seen a thousand times before: the grieving widowed father, the badass lady who needs to prove her strength.
Some characters in Honor Among Thieves receive arcs that feel painfully underdeveloped, their climaxes arriving seemingly unannounced with an expectation of emotional investment that’s undeserved. Other characters don't even get an arc or opportunity to move beyond their assigned vibe. The lack of exploration of Doric’s identity as a tiefling – often an outcast species in the world of D&D – feels like a missed opportunity. The one exception to this rule is Simon, whose arc to overcome his lack of self-belief works thanks to the fact that it’s actually seeded and consistently referenced throughout the film - meaning that its payoff feels earned.
Easily the greatest aspects of worldbuilding within Honor Among Thieves can be found in the finer details.
Other highlights include Hugh Grant’s Forge, who is disappointingly absent for most of the movie’s runtime but lights up any scene he appears in thanks to what is a rather obvious – albeit welcome – retread of his character in Paddington 2. Unfortunately, Grant’s character is regularly pushed aside in favour of the film’s main villain, Red Wizard Sofina (Daisy Head). Sofina is miserably boring as an antagonist and has no real motivation behind her actions beyond that most dull of alignments: being “evil”. Her character’s ties to the Forgotten Realms’ Red Wizards of Thay is also where a lot of the more pondering moments of exposition and backstory happen, which might be engaging to diehard fans of Dungeons & Dragons lore, but no-one else.
Easily the greatest aspects of worldbuilding within Honor Among Thieves can be found in the finer details. Though Doric’s tiefling design is devastatingly boring – which doesn’t go further than horns and a tail - the other non-humanoid characters are blessedly not. Despite only appearing for brief moments, the few dragonborn characters we see look superb. This is largely thanks to the fact that they’ve clearly been created with the use of practical effects. There’s also an interaction with a cat-like tabaxi character, their child and a big fish that brought a beaming smile to my face. Though the effects for the tabaxi weren’t the cleanest, they had an air of Buffy the Vampire Slayer about them that shone with absolute love and care that a CGI version would have lacked.
If only it had leaned deeper into the elements that make it unique, Honor Among Thieves might have captured my heart a little more.
There were plenty of other delightful details that gave the tabletop RPG film life and character beyond just its special effects – although the monster design was wonderful, especially on a chonky dragon that chases our heroes in an especially rollicking action sequence. Characters regularly use specific Dungeons & Dragons terms to discuss spellcasting – such as attuning - names that only fans of D&D would know are banded about, like Mordenkainen, and certain spells can be immediately identified thanks to their design, such as a welcome appearance of Bigby’s Hand. Simon even uses material, somatic and verbal elements when casting spells, with enemies taking advantage of those requirements during fights. There’s one particular joke made about the arbitrary limitations of a certain spell that was used to great comedic effect and got a lot of laughs.
Whenever Honor Among Thieves utilises its tabletop source material, it becomes a brilliant fantasy film that stands out against its largely sci-fi and superhero peers. This also occurs in the moments when the main group devise the kind of plans and conjure up the sorts of spontaneous ideas that a party might in a playthrough of Dungeons & Dragons. Brainstorming unexpectedly clever ways to use certain spells, pieces of equipment and abilities is something all D&D players are familiar with and is a big part of what makes the roleplaying game so enduringly beloved.
It’s a shame that these clever moments and playful references are bogged down by its derivative characters, convoluted plot and at times tumbleweed-inducing comedy quips that feel like they belong in a film that came out ten years ago. If only it had leaned deeper into the elements that make it unique, Honor Among Thieves might have captured my heart a little more. The blockbusters that are most beloved nowadays have more than just action set-pieces and jokes, they have clear themes that are explored by their character arcs and plotlines: something that Honor Among Thieves crucially lacks. Perhaps with some better writers, a more focused story and some well-developed ideas, a possible sequel could roll a critical hit.