[Screen It]

(2000) (Justin Whalin, Zoe McLellan) (PG-13)

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Action/Adventure: A ragtag group of individuals tries to find a magical scepter that will prevent an evil man from usurping control of an Empire where both dungeons and dragons are quite prevalent.
In a mystical place of a time unknown, there's turmoil in the Empire of Izmer. The young Empress, Savina (THORA BIRCH), wants equality and prosperity for both the magic capable Mages as well as the commoners, but Profion (JEREMY IRONS), an evil and power-hungry mage, wants to overthrow her, but needs the support of a special council to do so.

With just three days before she must relinquish her rule, Savina hopes that Marina (ZOE McLELLAN), a mage apprentice, can use a map to find a legendary magical scepter that can control the land's red dragons and thus prevent Profion from usurping her throne and power. Unfortunately, he's sent his lieutenant, Damodar (BRUCE PAYNE), and his henchman in search of that same scepter, and Marina soon finds herself on the run.

Unwillingly joining her are two common thieves, Ridley (JUSTIN WHALIN) and Snails (MARLON WAYANS), that she previously caught trying to rob the Magic School, as well as the dwarf Elwood (LEE ARENBERG) and Savina's best tracker, Norda (KRISTEN WILSON), an elf. As the ragtag group tries to find the scepter and preserve peace in their land, they must overcome various obstacles, difficulties and repeated run-ins with Damodar and his men while doing so.

OUR TAKE: 1 out of 10
It's not that uncommon for one to ask "why" when it's announced that a certain film is going to be made, especially when it's to be based on some other medium that doesn't necessarily seem best suited for an adaptation to the silver screen. It's not unusual to ask that same question while watching a film and wondering why the filmmakers chose to cast a particular performer or have the story go in a certain direction. Nor is it out of the question for people to leave a theater or turn off a video asking why they wasted their time sitting through whatever it is they just watched.

All of those whys and plenty more certainly apply to the release of "Dungeons & Dragons." While I'll readily admit to knowing next to nothing about the role-playing game that debuted back in 1974, it certainly seems that it reached its peak of popularity long ago. That, and the fact that popular games usually don't make great movies means that this release may have been ill advised. One could argue the same about "Twister," but alas, that flying cow flick had nothing to do with intertwined body parts, colored circles and a large spinner.

But I digress. Assuming there was some good reason for the film to be made and presuming it hasn't been sitting on the shelf for years (the presence and appearance of Thora Birch assures that), one then gets to the second set of why questions. In particular and unless one is a rapid fan of the game and/or wants to relive their early teenage years, they're apt to ask why they were 1) foolish enough to expect the movie to be good; 2) dumb enough to allow their friends to talk them into seeing it; and 3) possibly too inebriated to realize that they should have avoided the film like the plague.

Since the film is so bad, often indecipherable to all but the those intimately familiar with it, and certainly less than engaging on nearly any level, viewers will certainly have the time - if they haven't already dozed off or left - to ponder those questions as well as why performers such as Jeremy Irons ("Die Hard With a Vengeance," "Reversal of Fortune") or Miss Birch ("American Beauty," "Clear and Present Danger") opted to appear in this debacle. Was it the money, or did they owe something to someone?

One can only hope that it wasn't their ultimate career goal. While Irons has something of a built-in villainous aura about him - perhaps due to the previous roles he's played and that soothingly, evil-sounding voice - he hams it up so much here (immediately starting with the various first scene in which he appears and every one thereafter) that you half expect him to be working under the pseudonym, Porky Pig.

Birch, on the other hand, is incredibly wooden and looks uncomfortable throughout, as if embarrassed that she's appearing as a second-rate Queen Amidala (the character Natalie Portman played far more convincingly in "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace").

As far as the other performances are concerned, Justin Whalin (TV's "Lois and Clark - The Adventures of Superman") and Marlon Wayans ("Scary Movie," "Senseless") bring unwelcome and unnecessary contemporary attitudes and dialogue to their poorly drawn characters (that elicited unintentional laughter from our audience).

Zoe McLellan (who's appeared in various movie and TV bit parts), Lee Arenberg ("Tapeheads," "Waterworld") and Kristen Wilson ("Doctor Dolittle, "Bulletproof") are instantly forgettable playing characters that are also best described that way. Meanwhile, Bruce Payne ("Passenger 57," "Highlander: Endgame") comes off like nothing more than a pumped up, evil Billy Zane type character who inexplicably has blue lips.

Further worsening matters is the fact that the film constantly feels like huge portions of it were lifted from other pictures (or even sci-fi and action/adventure TV shows) ranging from the likes "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Star Trek," "Legend," "Dragonheart" and many others. The most blatant is a rip-off of the scene from "Raiders" where Indy avoids various booby traps to retrieve the golden head. Perhaps first-time director Courtney Solomon and screenwriters Topper Lilien and Carroll Cartwright (who collaborated on "Where the Money Is") were going for the homage route, but it only comes off as a cheap imitation that's been copied/parodied many times before (and far better, such as in "The Simpsons").

As far as the rest of the film and its story are concerned, it certainly won't be discussed in film school anytime in the future - except for in the "Why We Shouldn't Make Movies From Games" class - and flits and careens its way from one point to the next. The only good thing about that is that with each such occurrence we at least realize we're that much closer to the end (which unfortunately and excruciatingly comes about 20 or 30 minutes too late for a film like this).

I can't attest how faithful the film is to the game, but for the average moviegoer and non-fan, the story, as a freestanding vehicle, isn't particularly interesting or engaging from an action or fantasy standpoint, but is often unintentionally funny when it swings for the fences - and strikes out -- from a dramatic perspective. Simply put, the film isn't very good, and beyond some decent but not outstanding computer graphics and related effects, there's nothing here worthy of receiving a recommendation. "Dungeons & Dragons" should either be locked away in the first or fed to the latter. As such, it rates as just a 1 out of 10.

Reviewed December 5, 2000 / Posted December 8, 2000

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