D&D Movie/TV An Analysis of the Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves Trailer

The official trailer for Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is out and I decided to dust off my film school education to give it a proper analysis not just as a TTRPG journalist but from a film criticism standpoint. Though I should note I did drop out of film school…

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To start with, let’s talk about what a trailer is. It’s a commercial for the movie. This usually means its representative of what to expect from the film itself, but not always. As many YouTube experiments have shown, you can twist a film into pretty much anything using only two minutes of carefully selected clips like the classic Stanley Kubrick feel-good family comedy Shining. This means you can typically get an idea of what a film will be from the trailer, but you should never trust the trailer either. Scenes are often re-arranged and whole conversations created by splicing together different lines of dialogue with the intent of manufacturing drama or creating a joke. Scenes are sometimes shot solely for the trailer or end up on the cutting room floor before the film sees release. Special effects shots in particular will often change drastically from the trailer to the finished film, particularly for an effects-heavy genre film like Honor Among Thieves so far from the release date next year.

So with that in mind, let’s start talking about my thoughts on the trailer.


Initial impression is that early interviews with the creators indicated they were going for a Guardians of the Galaxy tone, and they definitely nailed that. An ensemble cast takes on a “we’re-trying-not-to-spoil-plot-details” threat of apocalyptic proportions while snarking at one another over scenes of either action or physical comedy but more frequently both at once. The film seems to be taking the plot, story, and source material seriously while allowing the comedy to come organically from the characters and situations in a way that feels grounded rather than forcing gags, winking at the audience, or going for an intentional comedic cheesiness. The performances are naturalistic rather than the over-the-top hamminess of the 2000 Dungeons & Dragons film. There are a few concerning bits here and there, but overall it looks like the sort of light adventure blockbuster typical of modern tentpole releases.

Now, I only watched the trailer once before writing that previous paragraph because I did notice a few things that bothered me and that excited me I wanted to go into more detail about, but doing so required covering the trailer with a fine-toothed comb. I wanted my initial reaction to play on its own the way most people would experience the trailer – watching it once then waiting for the next one – before I start nitpicking it to death after going frame-by-frame a hundred a forty-two times.

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A quick rundown of the plot based on the trailer: The bard Edgin and his partner-in-crime Holga stole a magical MacGuffin for someone. That someone turned out to be bad and now may unleash the greatest evil the world has ever seen (considering this is set in Faerûn which has seen multiple Gods go on rampages in events labeled “Sundering” or “Cataclysm”, this is either an exaggeration or some incredibly serious **** is about to go down). Edgin and Holga assemble a team to fix the apocalypse they accidentally assisted in starting with the help of the sorcerer Simon, the druid Doric, and the paladin Xenk. Hijinks ensue involving multiple dragons, the Red Wizards of Thay, and the Lord of Neverwinter Forge Fitzwilliam (though earlier material had his name as Forge Fletcher).

My first and biggest complaint (and the only one I mentioned on social media) is the lighting. I know it’s become standard to use flat, standardized lighting in films for ease of post-production effects work, conversions to 3D, and just because it’s easier to shoot without complex lighting setups. But it makes the film look flat almost like a TV show rather than a film that should have the budget and time to have proper lighting setups for each shot. Like I said before, this is a trailer and the film is over half a year from release so that may be fixed in post-production with a final pass at color grading.

Probably the most common criticism I’ve seen outside the TTRPG community online is the use of a slight remix of Led Zepplin’s “Whole Lotta Love”. The song doesn’t quite fit with the idea of a fantasy action-adventure…but Chris Pine’s character is a bard so the song’s theme fits the stereotype… Personally I’m not as concerned about this. It’s common to edit a trailer to a song for timing reasons and studios have opted to use the popular music rather than treat it as a temp track. It’s highly unlikely that the film’s score or soundtrack will include the song except maybe for the opening or closing credits.

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The trailer is packed with references to Dungeons & Dragons. Within hours of release, the first “D&D Movie Trailer Easter Eggs” videos showed up on YouTube with screenshots of the film with a little arrow pointed at nothing to clickbait you into going “Wait, why is that particular torch hanging on the wall significant?”. I’ve purposely avoided all of the reference lists online except for the one from the official Dungeons & Dragons YouTube account with Chris Perkins and Todd Kenreck. While someone more familiar with Forgotten Realms lore might catch a few more references than I did, here’s a quick rundown of everything I noticed: Neverwinter, a black dragon with acid breath, a few Red Wizards of Thay, a location that’s either Undermountain or the Underdark, a tiefling wildshaping into an owlbear, an animated statue of a dragon, several different spells but in particular a very interesting shot of dimension door, a location that is definitely Underdark and possibly Menzoberranzan or Gracklstugh, a mimic, a deplacer beast, a gelatinous cube, and a very chonky red dragon breathing fire. There are others that were more unclear either due to fast cuts, possible design changes for the film, or unfinished effects, such as a group of humanoids with greyish-white skin that seem too tall (or too short if Enlarged) to be duergar and too round-eared to be drow. If you want a blow-by-blow of every single tidbit, I’m sure they’ll start popping up online from your favorite sources soon.

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As is obvious from the number of references just in the trailer, this film does not shy away from the more fantastical elements of Forgotten Realms. Rather than try to hide the magic to create a more quote-unquote grounded setting, magic permeates almost every single shot in the trailer. Swords crackle with magical energy, enchanted items beyond weapons and armor hide in corners of the scree, and so many spells are thrown around I couldn’t even begin to count them all.

Speaking of armor, the costuming in the film is spot on. The armor designs look unique yet functional in a way that sets it apart from typical “ripped from history” designs we frequently see in fantasy films while still seeming like something that would protect the people wearing it. The non-armor outfits look setting-appropriate without feeling dated or out of place. Chris Pine’s leather jacket wouldn’t turn your head if you saw someone wearing it on the street, but it still blends seamlessly with other characters’ cloaks and robes. Whatever the costume designer was paid for this film, it was not enough.

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It's difficult to judge the cinematography from a trailer because modern trailers are edited at a frenetic pace that prevents the audience from seeing a lot of more subtle camera work. However, there are many shots that I thought looked amazing. Particularly the dimension door I mentioned earlier that has Sophia Lillis’s druid Doric doing a flip from one location into another is stunning and an overhead panning shot of a Red Wizard of They holding the film’s magical MacGuffin over his head that’s just the right amounts of clearly communicating information while still giving the feeling of disorientation and unease.

I’ve tried to avoid comparing this film too much to the 2000 live-action film, but one part the trailer shows off well that I think deserves mention is the fight choreography. In that there’s actual fight choreography. The most obvious is Michelle Rodriguez looking more badass than she ever has in a film (a high standard to meet with her film resume) showing the raw strength and agility of a barbarian by oh my god she picks up a guy in full plate armor three feet in the air before slamming him into the ground. The action also seems varied with Regé-Jean Page’s Xenk facing off against multiple foes at once, the group dodging several dangerous monsters in an arena, and a large battle scene between opposing armies that seems to get interrupted by a surprise dragon.

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While the ensemble of protagonists will be a five man band, the focus in the trailer seems to be on three of the characters in particular: the human bard Edgin Darvis (Chris Pine), the barbarian Holga Kilgor (Michelle Rodriguez), and the tiefling druid Doric (Sophia Lillis). While the paladin Xenk (Regé-Jean Page) and half-elf sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith) have some screentime, they’re more incidental compared to the others with Xenk only seen in a couple of action scenes and Simon casting a spell via a magic helm and giving a line of exposition about owlbears. Edgin gives off the sort of smarmy charm reminiscent of a slightly less egotistical version of Chris Pine’s turn as Captain Kirk from the rebooted Star Trek films. If I haven’t made it clear, Michelle Rodriguez steals the trailer for me and I cannot wait to see more of Holga’s pure badassery and deadpan snark. Despite getting a lot of screentime in the trailer, we don’t see a whole lot of Doric’s character as her biggest roles outside of the wildshape owlbear rampage is poking holes in Edgin’s patter during her recruitment scene.

The most important part of an ensemble cast is the chemistry between characters but it’s also one of the hardest parts to convey in a trailer since there’s not a lot of time to establish relationships or raport. The only characters that really interact with one another are Edgin, Holga, and Doric (excepting the one owlbear line from Simon). However, what little we do get to see works as Edgin and Holga feel like old friends who know one another well and Doris plays well against Elgin’s charm by being mostly unaffected by it and surgically striking at his line of self-aggrandizing bull.

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The effects are the most difficult to judge as many of them are obviously unfinished. The acid breath from the dragon looks more like tar as finishing touches to make it more obviously acidic haven’t been added yet, and the second time the owlbear shows up for a split-second diving at the camera feels like it’s lacking fine details. Some scenes that feel like they should be crowd scenes are rather empty indicating more characters will be composited in later. However, what effects are present are solid with the CGI even at this early stage blending well into the live-action footage. The digital matte shots of Neverwinter and the Underdark already looking amazing, combining the fantastic elements in realistic way so they match the feel of the other obviously real-world location sweeping landscape shots rather than looking like a video game cutscene.

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Now for the owlbear in the room: How accurate is it to the Dungeons & Dragons game? Already people are talking about the fact druids in the rules can’t wildshape into an owlbear. First off, who cares it looks friggin’ awesome. Second, does anyone really think Wizards of the Coast isn’t going to release a tie-in product capitalizing on the cross-promotion with a new Druidic Circle with exactly that ability? Besides, a film is an adaptation. Just like changes are necessary when adapting from a novel to a film, some changes will need to be made to adapt from a game to a film. The important thing is that the changes made still fit within the tone and theme of the original material. Based on what’s available in the trailer, it appears the directors took great care in translating the stat blocks into the new medium.

Overall, the trailer manages to pack a lot into just over two minutes. There are still some rough patches and the film’s plot isn’t that well defined beyond the simple premise of “Baddie has a MacGuffin, must stop Baddie or world ends”. But there’s still plenty of time before the March 2023 release for the rough edges to receive a polish and more details to emerge allowing audiences to get a better idea of what to expect.

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Darryl Mott

Darryl Mott


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Buddy Hause

Villager
I was wondering if anyone had an idea about what artifact the "red/black" glowing horn may be? Is it the draakhorn?
 

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jasper

Rotten DM
D&D Nerds any thing in the movie which is not allowed by Raw it is due to the PC is the spouse of the DM. Or the players aka PCs bluffed the DM.
 

I was wondering if anyone had an idea about what artifact the "red/black" glowing horn may be? Is it the draakhorn?
Probably the Horn of Eltab, a demon lord heavily involved with Thayans, including a canonical adventure with Szass Tam attempting to enslave him. Also well known for having a big honking horn on his head.

Only problem is that Eltab is not a really well known name, so they might change the demon lord to someone popular like Orcus.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Probably the Horn of Eltab, a demon lord heavily involved with Thayans, including a canonical adventure with Szass Tam attempting to enslave him. Also well known for having a big honking horn on his head.

Only problem is that Eltab is not a really well known name, so they might change the demon lord to someone popular like Orcus.
CR had a whole arc involving the Horn of Orcus, at the beginning of the campaign 1 stream. That doesn’t mean anything, just fun trivia.
 


Bolongo

Herr Doktor
CR had a whole arc involving the Horn of Orcus, at the beginning of the campaign 1 stream. That doesn’t mean anything, just fun trivia.
And IIRC the idea of the horns of Orcus as artifacts is something Matt made up, not part of anything previously published for D&D, right?
In which case they would definitely not use it for this movie - unless they gave him a writing credit or something.
 

Abstruse

Legend
And IIRC the idea of the horns of Orcus as artifacts is something Matt made up, not part of anything previously published for D&D, right?
In which case they would definitely not use it for this movie - unless they gave him a writing credit or something.
That wouldn't be enough for a writing credit by a long shot. Since it's a studio film, credits are determined under the bylaws of the various unions involved - for writing, this would be the WGA. Their rules for who gets what credit are very strict and just coming up with an item used would be nowhere close to enough. And as Matt Mercer is a member of SAG-AFTRA, the actor's union, he would be well aware of this.

Besides, the "Horn of Orcus" isn't nearly unique enough of a magic item to claim any sort of ownership over it. It would be like me trying to claim they owe me any sort of credit or acknowledgment because I had a half-elf sorcerer whose name started with S back in college. Even if they knew about Sylon (no, I didn't know anything about Battlestar Galactica at the time and the reboot show hadn't started yet), I wouldn't have any claims over the rights. Orcus is a well-established part of D&D and horns as magic items for summoning or breaking down barriers is kind of the most common use for them.

That said, I doubt they'd change an existing magic item connected in lore to the antagonists just because it was more obscure than another demon lord. If anything's come through the trailer, it's that they're not shying away from digging pretty deep in the lore for references. Besides, making Eltab a big name by featuring him in the film would be good for them. Unlike Orcus (who was part of Roman mythology), Eltab is a unique creation for Dungeons & Dragons and they could press an intellectual property claim over the trademark for the name and character.

Besides, at this rate Stranger Things Season 5 is going to have "Orcus" as the Big Bad and it's going to be like an evil pizza delivery guy who's a werewolf because their names for baddies taken from D&D have nothing to do with whatever the monster is in the show.
 

And IIRC the idea of the horns of Orcus as artifacts is something Matt made up, not part of anything previously published for D&D, right?
In which case they would definitely not use it for this movie - unless they gave him a writing credit or something.
It is. The Wand of Orcus goes back to 1st edition, but Mercer invented the horns. Probably based on the Horn of Dagoth from Conan the Destroyer, which I think was based on a Howard short story.

I suspect this is the Horn of [McGuffin Created for this Adventure].
 

I suspect this is the Horn of [McGuffin Created for this Adventure].
I would definitely prefer them using Eltab, since he's a pretty interesting demon lord directly involved in the formation of Thay as a nation. But if it's a new McGuffin, I won't be surprised if some of Eltab's lore is mixed into this custom creation. He has some neat story beats, even if his name is derpy.
 

SpllChkPlzTY

First Post
I love how everyone is supposedly obsessed with "OMG owlbear transformations are illegal!" and no one is picking up that druids don't get Dimension Door, they get Plain Shift... but no one seems to care/notice.
 

agrayday

Explorer
Im thinking the obese dragon is Themberchaud from Out of the Abyss, which means Gracklstugh, as indicated by all the dwarf statues. Watching the battle scene with the black dragon showing up, the first shot you can clearly see dragon cultist' ahead of the dragon based on their costumes. Would those arena scenes be the "Field of Triumph" in waterdeep?
 


We're pretty sure all the urban shots in the trailer are of Neverwinter because of this video: https://youtu.be/JGIdeBc4Uyw?t=1089
Other reasons too.

1) Whilst there is clearly creative licence in the cityscape, the aerial shots look a lot more like the Neverwinter map than the Waterdeep map.

2) The orange banners glimpsed in the trailer city streets were seen in now-suppressed set photos from Alnwick Castle. Alongside blue and white banners showing Neverwinter iconography.

3) Neverwinter was mentioned in early script leaks.


Now, Neverwinter doesn't canonically have a huge arena (based on the real-world colosseum) next to the palace. But new buildings get built, and this was clearly required for the plot.

A smaller arena in Neverwinter does feature in NWN2.
 

I love how everyone is supposedly obsessed with "OMG owlbear transformations are illegal!" and no one is picking up that druids don't get Dimension Door, they get Plain Shift... but no one seems to care/notice.
I don't think there is sufficient evidence to say that was Dimension Door, and not, say, a pre-existing hidden portal. It doesn't really resemble the spell description.
 

I would definitely prefer them using Eltab, since he's a pretty interesting demon lord directly involved in the formation of Thay as a nation. But if it's a new McGuffin, I won't be surprised if some of Eltab's lore is mixed into this custom creation. He has some neat story beats, even if his name is derpy.
It may not be demonic at all. It could be draconic for example.

Although if it is fiendish, it could be associated with an ancestor of Doric.
 


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