Sunday, April 9, 2023

Game Night:

I never played Dungeons & Dragons. I am, however, familiar with the stereotype of the endless roleplaying game’s sessions with nerds huddled around convoluted backstories and their Dungeon Master’s maps and outlines while eagerly hanging on the results of each dice roll’s permission to activate their next move. I suppose that mental image of mine has to be somewhat true, since the new feature film Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is true to that idea. It’s loose and rambling, packed with casually tossed off jargon and hyperventilated backstory. Flashbacks and narration nestle each new origin story into the main storyline when a character appears for the first time, like the actor pulled up to the table with their stats sheet ready to share. It gathers up a team of rascals in this way, each with a consequential backstory and a handy list of special skills that help the group assemble new plans to tackle each new fantasy obstacle in their episodic way. The overarching story finds a down-on-his-luck single dad (Chris Pine) and his best friend (Michelle Rodriguez) hoping to save his daughter (Chloe Coleman) from an evil wizard (I shan’t spoil his actor’s identity, nor the obvious reveal of who’s in charge of him). The path there is a daisy-chain of fetch quests, with shape-shifters, and self-serious knights, and enchanted objects, and magic spells, and creatures, and labyrinths, and lore, and portals, and undead warriors, and insecure wizards, and overweight dragons, and a gelatinous cube, and, and, and.

It’s all piled up vaguely amusingly and decently snappily, its bright frames and tone bending in the easy-going direction of The Princess Bride with some stretches of cleverness bending even closer to Monty Python circular silliness, albeit without either’s overtly meta edges. Is this fun? To a point. The personalities are fine, the effects suitably outsized, and the direction by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley hews closer to their plate-spinning ensemble Game Night than their rancid Vacation reboot. It’s bright, light on its feet, and finds reasonably clever fantasy flourishes throughout. I bet I would’ve liked it even more if I was 12 years old, or cared about its source material. The younger me who had affection for all the off-brand fantasy movies of the 80s and 90s—your Willows and Krulls and Dragonhearts—was pleased.

So often the movies today, at least at their biggest box office levels, are merely drafting off affection for stuff you liked before with little else to offer. On that level, The Super Mario Bros. Movie may be the most effective of its kind. Here’s Minion-maker Illumination’s computer animated recreation of the sights, sounds, and actions of Nintendo’s most famous video game creation. To watch it is to feel like you’re watching the game on autopilot, swaddled in the childhood sensations with the pressure off and the fond memories on. An early scene is even a bit of side-scrolling hopping and bopping. Ah, that’s the stuff. Here’s the plucky plumber Mario and his brother Luigi as they get yanked through a magic pipe and end up in a fantasyland where a giant turtle dinosaur is about to attack a peaceful mushroom kingdom. Luigi ends up in the villain’s dungeon, and Mario must ally with the powerful Princess Peach to save his brother, and her kingdom, and maybe the whole world. There are bright primary colors, briskly paced adventure sequences, with nonstop bouncy action, and bubbly voice work. (The all-star cast—including Chris Pratt and Charlie Day and Jack Black and Anya Taylor-Joy and more—downplay the broad cartoony voices of the games by about 15%.) The extremely simple story and tissue-thin characters are all about iconic poses and simple lessons as they bounce through a variety of recognizable lands—the spacious castle grounds, the Donkey Kong jungle kingdom, a winding race down Rainbow Road. You get the picture.

It worked on me, though I haven’t played a video game with any regularity in a couple decades now. I’m dispositionally closer to the infamous Adrian Childs’ column headlined “Video games are good for your mental health? Not if you play like me.” But I do consider Super Mario 64 the height of the form, so to see its aesthetics, along with Mario Kart’s and other recognizable Mario looks’, so faithfully recreated, down to the sound effects of each bop and kick and the synth chords on the score, was a Proustian reverie. Maybe that’s a little sad, but so is nostalgia. The movie’s a total delight on that score, even if it does nothing but recreate the fun of the games with blessedly little asked of you. At least it’s not cliches pretending to be depth like the dreary The Last of Us or hedging with new human characters like the agreeable Sonic the Hedgehogs. This movie promises only Mario and his world on the big screen and, by golly, here it is.

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