Ever since Game of Thrones took over the world, fantasy storytelling has proliferated on screen. Last year alone saw the release of two mega-budget sword-and-magic TV shows striving to fill Game of Thrones' shoes, and the release of a new movie based on the world of Dungeons & Dragons certainly fits the same cultural pattern as Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power and House of the Dragon. But the difference between adapting a game like D&D rather than a series of novels by J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin is that the goal is to capture an experience rather than a specific story — and Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves delightfully nails the fun of role-playing as fantasy characters with your friends. It doesn't require any prior playing experience, either.
Originally invented by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in the '70s, Dungeons & Dragons has found renewed popularity in recent years — part of that is the influence of Game of Thrones, whose showrunners openly talked about the inspiration they drew from the game, but there's also something to be said for the increasing attractiveness of social activities defined by imagination and teamwork rather than phone screens and computer graphics. Players create and control their own characters but work together as a unit to overcome obstacles introduced by the one player who takes on the omniscient role of "Dungeon Master." It's endlessly malleable to different people's preferences and personalities — even a DM's best-laid plans can get knocked off the rails by players' decisions — which makes it fun to play over and over again.
You don't need to know any of that to enjoy the movie, though. After all, Honor Among Thieves is stacked with familiar faces: Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis, and Regé-Jean Page play the main group of adventurers, with Hugh Grant taking on the villainous role of their ally-turned-adversary. Pine plays a bard, Rodriguez a barbarian, Smith a sorcerer, Lillis a druid, and Page a paladin — all of those are familiar character "classes" to D&D players, and their various abilities are depicted accurately. But in a relief for viewers who have no idea what the previous sentence means, the screenplay does not just dump exposition about what each character can and can't do.
Paramount Pictures and eOne Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis, Chris Pine, and Michelle Rodriguez in 'Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves'
Instead, their capabilities are vividly illustrated through entertaining setpieces. Even someone who's never played a role-playing game in their life can pick up that a druid's main power is shapeshifting into animals thanks to the early scene where Doric (Lillis) spies on the bad guys and then evades capture by changing into a bug, then a mouse, then a hawk, a cat, and a deer. You could say that each character represents a common D&D playstyle (with Pine's Edgin as the planner and Rodriguez's Holga as the hit-first-ask-questions-later muscle, to name two) but to the uninitiated, it's also just like a heist movie, where each team member brings a different specialty to the table.
The actors seem to be having fun, which makes a big difference in a film so reliant on special effects. Pine is one of the most charming modern American movie stars, and seeing him light up the screen here serves as a reminder that amidst recent dour performances in Don't Worry Darling and All the Old Knives, it's been six years since we last saw him just being fun and romantic in Wonder Woman. It's easy to forget that the success of the 2009 Star Trek was powered as much by his personal charisma as sci-fi nostalgia or J.J. Abrams lens flares! Grant, meanwhile, gets to tap once more into the hammy villainy that made Paddington 2 the internet's favorite movie. A hot air balloon emblazoned with his face spitting out gold all over a medieval city late in Honor Among Thieves is one of the best sight gags of the year so far.
What's especially welcome about the humor in Honor Among Thieves is that it doesn't wink or mock its material; the characters just say funny things and bounce off each other as organically as a real-life friend group. The fantasy elements are played straight, and the central story is a relatable romp about how people who fail as individuals can still succeed together. A little cheesy, maybe, but why not roll the dice? Grade: B+