'Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves' has high charisma
STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
"Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" isn't the first attempt to adapt the legendary role-playing game for the big screen.
GLEN WELDON, HOST:
But this one does have the biggest budget, the best cast and, by far, the best script. I'm Glen Weldon.
THOMPSON: And I'm Stephen Thompson. Today, we are talking about "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Joining me today is host of The Indicator From Planet Money, Wailin Wong. Welcome.
WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: Hello. Thank you.
THOMPSON: Pleasure to have you. Also with us is Planet Money producer Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. Welcome back, Sam.
SAM YELLOWHORSE KESLER, BYLINE: Hold on one second. I just got to roll initiative.
THOMPSON: Nice. All right. So...
WELDON: Here we go.
THOMPSON: So as we noted in the intro, this is not the first movie adaptation of the '70s tabletop role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. There was an entire terribly misbegotten movie trilogy all the way back in the early 2000s. But "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" is a big-budget reset. Chris Pine stars as Ed Darvis, a wisecracking and charismatic thief who leads a band of misfits with different reasons to hate a malevolent ruler named Forge Fitzwilliam. Forge is played with great enthusiasm by Hugh Grant. Our heroes include a jacked barbarian named Holga, played by Michelle Rodriguez, a self-doubting sorcerer named Simon, played by Justice Smith. You've got a shape-shifting druid, a noble paladin, a bunch of evil red wizards, some dragons, talking corpses, relics and spells, an epic quest and lots of jokes.
To compare "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" to a popular Marvel franchise, the tone here is much closer to "Thor: Ragnarok" than, say, "Thor: The Dark World." It's a fantasy epic, but it's also a heist movie and a comedy. "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" was directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. They directed the terrific comedy "Game Night" and co-wrote "Spider-Man: Homecoming." The movie is in theaters now. Wailin, I'm going to start with you. What did you think of "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves"?
WONG: I had so much fun in this movie. And I play D&D, and so I went in very excited for this. And I think this movie really leans into what I like best about D&D, which is not combat. It's just straight-up tomfoolery. I just like to goof around with friends, and I like to get into funny hijinks. I like to go shopping and talk to people in the tavern and try to pull off a clever diversion. I prefer that to fighting in D&D. And so I think this movie really captures just the shenanigans and the hijinks. And so I thought it was a blast. And I really appreciate that they lean into the fun of it.
I also appreciated this movie because it has what I think is a light touch with both character backstory and game mechanics. And I think being overweighted on either of those things would have kind of doomed the movie for me, but it was handled in a very deft way where I didn't feel like I needed to tune into a lot of backstory if I didn't feel like it. It felt kind of optional, honestly. And I didn't feel like I needed to remember exactly how this spell or this magical object works, you know? So this movie is a really nice alternative to all of this really heavy, almost punishing fantasy we get where you also feel like, at the end of the show or whatever, you're going to get quizzed on the history of dynastic alliances.
WONG: And there was no quiz at the end of this movie. I could just enjoy the ride. And for that, I am very grateful. I will also note I'm not a D&D nitpicker, so I want to say - shoutout to my dungeon master Cory Dungeons - I know a druid cannot wild shape into an owlbear. I am OK with that. I'm OK with that.
THOMPSON: That ruined the movie for me (laughter). All right. How about you, Sam?
KESLER: Yeah. So this movie felt to me like a flagon of mead - goes down smooth but not a lot of substance, to be honest. And it's because it kind of falls in this gray area of trying to appeal to fans and a general audience. In the end, I felt like it probably went a little bit more towards a general audience, but it does suffer a bit from this Marvelifying (ph) of movies. It makes a lot of jokes. There's a lot of visual gags. Some of them worked. Some of them didn't. But overall, I just felt like this was a perfectly enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. But you won't go out with any kind of grand revelations about the nature of high fantasy or anything like that. I'll also just say, it rests a lot on Chris Pine's - what I'll call Chris Pine's charisma modifier.
KESLER: Pause for laughter. Chris Pine's charisma modifier - how much exactly you can rest on his ability to lead an ensemble cast. You know, I think that it also pulled it off fairly well. I mean, he's just very charming. He's incredibly just great to look at and great to watch, and I think this role was really great for him, so overall - perfectly enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.
THOMPSON: How about you, Glen?
WELDON: You know, Stephen, there's a term of art that we big-time, professional film critics employ occasionally, and I'll have to translate it from the French, but I think you'll get the gist - hoot and a half, this thing. Oh, boy, this thing's a hoot and a half. I just rolled over on my back and exposed my belly. I knew what I was getting into because I know D&D but also because I know what a putative blockbuster franchise looks like in 2023, and it's exactly what Sam said. I think it's going to adopt a very specific, uniform tone, which I think we can call now Marvel funny, which is adjacent to actually funny but is much more calculated.
It exists to wink at the audience, to treat all the fantastic stuff in your movie, whether it be superpowers or space battles or, in this case, you know, spells and monsters, as if it existed in the real world. And what would characters react if - in the real world? Well, they'd be sardonic and very writerly. What they would say would undercut and deescalate the action. It would bring us up short. And, you know, so that way the filmmakers can have their bombast, their over-the-top stuff without really committing to it. Everybody's going to come along with a quip at some point to act as a release valve, which is a signal to the audience, hey, guys, look, we get it. It's not cheugy. It's not cringe. We're still cool. We're still cool. And...
THOMPSON: It's not cheugy (laughter).
WELDON: I know it's - that's me saying that. Here's my point. The formula, that specific, Marvel-funny formula is wearing thin. And it's not even fair to call it Marvel funny because, you know, it's blockbuster, really. You can find elements of it in "Jaws" and "Star Wars" and even "Superman: The Movie." I live for the moment when somebody's going to make a movie like this and go full cringe without conceding, without second-guessing themselves. But - so this movie starts, and I'm getting Marvel funny. I'm like, OK, here we go again. But then the jokes are better than they have any right to be...
WELDON: ...Or that they need to be to work. And then they took a step back, and it's exactly what Wailin said. There is something that is very true about this because any D&D session exists on exactly those two levels that this movie works on. Your character's experiencing something really violent and agonizing and death while you guys, your friends, are sitting around a table joking about everything that's happening. So it works, right? It just feels right. So yeah, hoot and a half - I got a lot more to say about this movie, but I want to get to you, Stephen, because you are our token normal at this table.
WELDON: You are not a D&D guy, even though, on paper, you are such a D&D guy.
THOMPSON: This is the thing, right? Like, what keeps me from being a D&D guy and what has always kept me from being a D&D guy is I don't like learning how to play games, and I am adjacent to some attention-deficit issues that make it very, very hard to really lean into just the length of a game and the complexity of a game. Monopoly is about my ceiling, and that's always held me back.
I've always had a lot of friends who play D&D. I've always wanted to spend a lot of time with those friends, but not playing D&D. And so I came into this movie really dreading the lore part because I already have no real ability to retain anything that's happened in the several dozen Marvel movies I've seen. And so to suddenly have to pick up a whole bunch of new lore about a whole new world was like, OK, I'm going to go into this movie. I know Glen kind of liked it. What am I going to get out of it? I loved this movie.
THOMPSON: And the reason that I loved this movie, and I loved basically every minute of it, is something Glen alluded to just now, which is jokes. And the jokes are not just they had an insert-joke-here situation. Like, here's where you'd put a quip. This movie is written by very funny people. Every joke is funnier than you think it's going to be. And Sam, you know, when you talked about the - kind of the Marvelification (ph) of blockbusters and how many movies feel like Marvel movies - this did, in some ways, feel like a Marvel movie.
But if I were to rank it among the Marvel movies, it would be in my top three to five. I found it so delightfully funny. I found Chris Pine to be at his best - very, very, very snappy dialogue. They throw lore at you, but it's very - it's hand-wavy enough that they're not really ever stopping to explain anything. You can kind of figure out, this gadget exists because we needed a gadget here. So let's just use the gadget and throw some jokes at it. The jokes make everything go down smoothly.
Is this movie kind of, as Sam alluded to, cobbled together from a lot of spare parts? Absolutely. One of the biggest joke moments in this movie is just lifted wholesale from a Marvel movie, but it still works because it is funny. It is made by funny people. I am going to stump for this as a long-shot best adapted screenplay nominee when we talk about the Oscars next year. They do not nominate enough comedies. This movie is so much better than it should be because this script is so much better than the scripts for this kind of movie usually are. I did have a question for the three of you, as players of the game. Like, were there a ton of Easter eggs that I missed? - because I really - I mean, I knew kind of, obviously, like...
WELDON: Stephen, it was Easter egg salad. It was Easter egg omelet. My God.
WELDON: I mean, yeah, to your point, it feels buoyed by the lore, not weighed down by it. If you know the mechanics of the game, you could recognize them happening on screen. You miss nothing if you don't. People toss out references to, like, Baldur's Gates. That's just there so you can turn to your nerd friend and go, Baldur's Gate, and then turn back to the screen. We see displacer beasts and rust monsters, and some of us will know what they're about. But if you don't, so what?
There is a reference in this film, guys, to fresh-cut grass, which has to be a Critical Role joke that is going to sail over many people's heads. It's going to do so without a trace. It doesn't matter. I mean, and to your point, Stephen, the story structure is very episodic. It's a series of fetch quests, but I'm not mad at that because that's what D&D is.
WONG: Yeah. I realized watching the movie that, you know, they do all these quests, right? So it's like you get - you have to go and get the thing, then you have to go visit this town and go talk to this person. And actually, you could have removed any one of them, and the movie would have just sailed along just fine.
WONG: And then I realized - I'm like, I'm not mad at that.
WONG: It felt very modular to me, like a D&D game.
KESLER: And just on the topic of it being - how much it kind of, like, stayed true to the gameplay of Dungeons & Dragons - just for context, I've played a few games of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition with friends, both as a DM and as a player. I want to shout out my characters, drow rogue Egret Vindershar (ph) and aarakocra ranger Creekrir (ph), with apologies to our transcript service.
KESLER: And with the gameplay elements, I did feel like this kind of stayed true to how this works. Yes, there's a lot of fetching of things, and, you know, there's some very obvious bad guy who you need to defeat. I also really liked that there were a lot of kind of unique and interesting problems that they had to face, which were not just, you know, punch the bad monster. It was finding your ways out of unique problems with creative solutions that oftentimes required different skills and different levels of teamwork. And so that just really struck me as true to how the gameplay actually goes.
The one thing that stuck in my craw throughout the whole movie - you are focusing on four adventurers here, and they were all kind of similar in that they're just, like, these humanoid people with - some with magic abilities, some without. And it just didn't strike me as true to how people play characters. People will come up with elaborate backstories and make these incredibly descriptive characters with lots of different attributes and make them kind of, like, come to life in your mind. And we got people who all look similar and, you know, all have similar-ish abilities.
The most notable example of this was with Doric the tiefling, who - if anybody has ever played a tiefling or seen an image of a tiefling, they're kind of demon adjacent. They're usually some shade of red or purple, and they're very noticeable. They stand out in any crowd. What we got here was what looked to be horns slapped on a wig.
THOMPSON: She looked like she was at a ren fair.
WONG: Well, they literally eat turkey legs at one point sitting in a row like they're at a ren fair.
KESLER: But Doric's character - I don't know if I want to use this word on here to describe this. It felt like whitewashing for a race that doesn't exist. It just felt so...
KESLER: ...Like, watered down for what tieflings normally are. And, again, it's just that issue of, like, trying to appeal to the general audience but also just making, like, these all kind of relatively samey-looking characters that are going to make the most sense to somebody coming in new.
WONG: Was she too yassified for you? She's, like, cute as a - too cute as a button.
KESLER: She was a little bit too yassified. Thank you for putting it into words.
WELDON: Just a word about this cast, I mean, you mentioned it, Stephen, but Chris Pine is doing what you hire Chris Pine to do. He is riding that line between charm and smarm. It is a knife's edge, but he just sets up base camp there. And speaking of smarm, Hugh Grant is...
THOMPSON: Oh, my gosh.
WELDON: He is in full "Paddington 2" zone. He is spreading that smarmalade (ph), and I am here for it. Michelle Rodriguez is doing Michelle Rodriguez. She's just doing it with a couple braids, you know? And that's fine. I like her. As for Rege-Jean Page - look, I usually play wizards so I can stand in the back and throw fireballs and not get hurt. But last time I played, I played a paladin. And, Stephen, just so you know, they're the smug, condescending white knights of the D&D world. They're pricks, basically. They're a bunch of Frasier Cranes in plate mail. And they're so much fun to play. And this guy just nails it. He nails the hauteur, and he's just so much fun. He's not in it enough, but he's a lot of fun.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I found this cast extraordinarily delightful. I - obviously, like, I can't rebut Sam's criticism because I am that general audience. I'm the reason they made the movie the way they did. I almost feel bad 'cause I feel like I've spoiled this movie for you, Sam.
KESLER: Tell me this would not be more fun with just a giant demon person placed in the middle of this, a giant bird person or...
KESLER: It would be so much more fun. I don't know. I don't - that's just my two cents.
WONG: If we had gotten a dragonborn or, you know - they have an aarakocra, the - Jarnathan - right? - the big bird creature at the beginning. And if a character like that had been along for the ride, I think that would have been more visually interesting, maybe, to your point, Sam. I think my favorite thing about how the movie resembles gameplay - this is a very minute thing, but for some reason I found it so delightful. So in D&D, you're carrying around all this stuff. Like, literally, on my character sheet, I have a list of all the stuff I'm carrying around. And my character plays the bassoon, so I'm carrying around a bassoon. And I have, you know, armor, and I have other weapons, and I have gold pieces, and I have rations and torches and a length of rope and all these things. There's actually no way you could engage in combat and do all the ridiculous things we do during the game while carrying an enormous, you know, hiking backpack. But we all do it, and you just kind of wave it away.
And I appreciate in this movie - first of all, Chris Pine's loot just appears and reappears randomly, and it stays with him even during combat. He somehow keeps it intact. It's like, how did the loot stay with him? Don't care. And then the other thing is there's this, like, really funny running gag of him constantly giving Simon the sorcerer things to hold. But you never see Simon just running around, clanking around with all this stuff. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. You're just holding it. It appears when you need to take it out, and otherwise, it does not weigh you down. And for some reason, I just love that 'cause I'm like, that's how the game works.
KESLER: It kind of feels like they were missing a mentioning of the bag of holding somewhere in there just to explain...
KESLER: ...And hand-wave that away.
THOMPSON: I'm glad you mentioned Simon, the amateur sorcerer, played by Justice Smith. I am glad to see that kid in a franchise worthy of him.
THOMPSON: He is in "Detective Pikachu," which is the most mid movie ever made. It is the Mendoza Line of movies. And so, like, seeing him get to be delightful and funny and weird in this was really great.
WELDON: And I got to say, Stephen, I think the fact that this is made for a general audience like you also kind of infects the main plot, in a way. I thought that the stuff that was the most generic was the stuff they put in for the normals to give it stakes, you know, the stuff with the daughter, Kira, all this talk about family and found family. It feels like Michelle Rodriguez came from the "Fast & Furious" franchise but didn't quarantine correctly. So she kind of infected this movie with a lot of family, family, family. You know, I keep coming back to - the notion of disparate people coming together is what D&D is about, both in-game and around the table, so I get it. But as character motivations go, they were awfully familiar - and the revelations - it just was a series of plot beats. It felt they got hit dependably but not as exceptionally as the jokes are in this film.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I don't think there are very many components of this movie that you won't have seen before. The trick is just how skillfully they're deployed and just how good the jokes are. Well, we want to know what you think about "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves." Find us at facebook.com/pchh. Up next, what is making us happy this week?
Now it's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week, what is making us happy this week? Wailin Wong, what is making you happy this week?
WONG: Well, I am very happy to report that Studio Ghibli Fest is back. These are films from the Japanese studio that makes all these beautiful animated films like "My Neighbor Totoro," which I just saw, and also "Kiki's Delivery Service," "Spirited Away," "Ponyo," and it's a Fathom Event series. So you can go on the Fathom Events website and see when these movies are playing in your town. And I really recommend it. Even if you've seen these movies a lot of times on DVD or whatever, like I have, there's something really magical about seeing them on the big screen, especially if there's kids in the audience, and I just really recommend it.
THOMPSON: Thank you, Wailin. Sam Yellowhorse Kesler, what's making you happy this week?
WONG: Woo hoo.
KESLER: "Succession" is back this week. It was a really tough week for a lot of reasons, and so it's good to have something to look forward to on Sunday. For those who don't know the show, it's about this company, Waystar Royco. It's about the controlling head of the company, Logan Roy, and his four children battling over the chance to lead the company after he leaves. It's funny. It's very dramatic. It's gripping. It's horribly cynical, if you're into that sort of thing. It's just all-around excellent.
It's the fourth season, the fourth and final season, and me and everybody I know on Twitter have been looking forward to the return of "Succession." I do want to give a quick shout-out to the Planet Money newsletter, too, by the way. Greg Rosalsky put out an excellent story this week about how nepo babies, a la "Succession," hurt big businesses. It can cause serious problems with management down the line when you just relegate your company to your firstborn. You can subscribe at npr.org/planetmoneynewsletter.
THOMPSON: I have not been watching "Succession," and so Sunday nights on Twitter are inscrutable again.
THOMPSON: So (laughter) thank you, Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. Glen Weldon, what's making you happy this week?
WELDON: Marvel Snap. It got me. I held out as long as I could - wasn't going to do it, and then last week broke me. Marvel Snap is a surprisingly intuitive mobile game - I played it as a mobile game - that has a perfect blend of skill and luck, which means you go into it knowing you will not always win, but when you do, it is so satisfying. Now, psychologists have a term for that. That is called intermittent reinforcement, and it's why Vegas exists, and it's addictive.
You start with a random assortment of cards with Marvel characters on them. Over several rounds, you play these cards at three different Marvel Universe locations, which change randomly every game. That's the luck. These locations impart various effects that may interact with the cards in some way because the cards you play also have powers that evoke the character powers, and they cost a certain number of points. You try to win each location by getting the most points. The game matches you with somebody else at your level, and much of the game is anticipating where your opponent is going to play their cards and what those cards are.
I haven't gotten into the thing where you play your friends. I'm not ready for that kind of stakes. I just like picking it up and playing it whenever. Every game takes, like, two minutes or so, and it's better if it's done with anonymous strangers, so you don't have to set up a play date. And sometimes I'm playing at 3 in the morning in bed, which is not healthy, but did I mention it was a bad week? So if you play it and the opponent it finds for you is Enchant Tambourine, that's me, baby.
WELDON: That's the mobile game, Marvel Snap. It's available on iOS, macOS, Android and Microsoft Windows.
THOMPSON: Quick follow-up question, Glen, is it the kind of game that is enhanced via microtransactions? Do people wind up spending money playing this game?
WELDON: The weak do, yes.
WELDON: The ones who don't have skill, yes, they will pay some money. But if you just play it enough, you can get around that.
THOMPSON: Great. Marvel Snap. Thank you, Glen Weldon. As Sam and Glen have alluded to and as Wailin well knows, this was a very difficult week at NPR, and there were a number of layoffs. It has been an agonizing experience. Like many people at the company, I have turned to escapism to get through it. My method of choice has been "Tournament Of Champions" from the Food Network. If you've been watching any March Madness - we're deep into March Madness season - you love a bracket. This is a bracket-style competition among TV chefs. And if you've watched as many cooking competitions as I have, you will know almost all of these faces and names, whether you watch, you know, the next "Food Network Star" or "Top Chef" - a lot of "Top Chef" alumni pop up on this thing.
It is hosted by - I will continue to stick my stake in the ground and say, the very underrated - Guy Fieri. I am a defender of Guy Fieri and always will be. He brings an enormous amount of enthusiasm to this without doing a lot of eating. If that is one of the reasons that you are sometimes put off by Guy Fieri, you are not watching him eat on this show.
It is just the right amount of stakes. There is excitement. There is a timed competition. There's a challenge wheel that kind of randomizes the tasks so they can't prepare ahead of time. Nobody's careers are going to be destroyed by this. Nobody's careers are necessarily going to be elevated by this. These are people who do a lot of cooking competitions, and they want to, like, extend their streak of the number of times they've won cooking competitions, and that is about the extent of the stakes. It is great fun. Four seasons of it are streaming on Discovery+. I highly, highly, highly recommend it. I love a cooking competition, and this is a real good one - "Tournament Of Champions." That is what is making me happy this week.
If you want links for what we recommended, plus some more recommendations, sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. Wailin Wong, Sam Yellowhorse Kesler, Glen Weldon, thanks so much for being here.
KESLER: Thank you so much.
WELDON: Thank you.
THOMPSON: I feel like I should have some sort of Dungeons & Dragons joke, but I am not informed enough to make it.
KESLER: It's OK. You're an NPC. It's fine. You don't have a lot of dialogue pre-written. Understandable.
THOMPSON: Thank you. One last thing before we go - the recent layoffs at NPR are affecting our show. Going forward, we are going to be in your feed four days a week. We promise it's the same show you know and hopefully love. We look forward to seeing all of you next week. This episode was produced by Hafsa Fathima and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Stephen Thompson, and we will see you all next week.
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