Monday, January 07, 2008

New Animated D&D Movie Coming!

I started playing Dungeons & Dragons when I was in college. I found the game by accident while shopping through a hobby store, became intrigued, and picked it up. Another year and a half passed before I found a couple of guys in college to play it with. Then Larry, Mike, and I would spend Friday nights and Saturdays knocking down doors in lost castles and abandoned dungeons everywhere we found them.

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman put the fiction side of Dungeon & Dragons’ world of Dragonlance on the bestseller map in 1984 with the publication of Dragons of Autumn Twilight. Legend has it that the novels actually sprang from a game played by the authors.

The DVD Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight is a straight-to-DVD release that is the first of hopefully more adventures to come. Like the novel of the same name, the DVD adventure concerns itself with a group of adventurers who are out to prove that the gods haven’t left the world entirely and do still care about the elves, dwarves, humans, kender, and others that live in it.

Tanis the Half-Elf (voiced by Smallville’s Michael Rosenbaum) is the group’s leader, and he’s on his way back to Solace, the village that he’d called home five years ago. Along the way, he meets up with his old friends Flint Fireforge (Fred Tatasciore) and Tasselhoff Burrfoot (Jason Marsden).

I watched the movie with my ten year old and he immediately caught onto the characters and the long friendship that existed between them. The repartee is clever and simple, and pulled my son and me right into the movie. Just a few minutes into the film, the screen was suddenly alive with sword fighting as a group of goblins tries to beat up our heroes.

I have to admit, this kind of action was welcome. And it was bloodless for the sword slinging that was going on.

Given that the film only has an hour and a half to tell the nearly 400 page book’s story, the pacing is headlong. The characters are all set up in Solace as Raistlin (24’s Keifer Sutherland, who must be some kind of D&D fan to do a direct to DVD film), Caramon (Rino Romano of Fox Network’s The Batman), and Strum Brightblade (Marc Worden) are all introduced in short order. The friendship is apparent, as well as the various tensions that were created in the Dragonlance series: Strum doesn’t trust Raistlin, Caramon is simple-minded and protective of Raistlin, Raistlin is selfish and somewhat power-hungry, Tasselhoff is a kleptomaniac, Flint is a grouch, and Tanis is torn between his two heritages. The story swings swiftly into high gear.

In this world, when the gods left, they also took the power of the clerics away. Those of us who’d played D&D had to wonder where any truly adventurous dungeon-crawler would be without a handy cleric to heal him after he’s stuck his head into the wrong room. Especially if he had his head handed back to him. Having a D&D world without the ability to get healed is, well, dangerous to say the least.

Two strangers are also in town, and it’s a familiar plot twist that has sent many an adventurer scurrying for supplies and the shortest way out of town. Riverwind (Phil Lamarr) and Goldmoon (Lucy Lawless of Xena) are there with the mysterious blue crystal staff of healing that the villains are searching for. While arguing with a local bully, Caramon ends up throwing the man into the fireplace. Tasselhoff inadvertently uses the staff to heal the man.

Realizing that the town is full of enemies and that the staff is important, Tanis marshals the others to get Riverwind and Moongold out of town. Their new objective is to find out if the gods have returned. And the adventure is up and running at a breakneck gallop.

There isn’t any deep meaning or thought behind Dragonlance: Dragons of the Autumn Twilight. Wicked villains pursue our heroes at every corner, and a lot of fighting and magic-wielding ensues. There’s even healing once the power of the blue crystal staff is discovered!

My son and I sat mesmerized throughout the action as the characters explored a world I knew from adventures of my own, while he’s just getting to know them. He’d just asked (and gotten) the basic Dungeons & Dragons set, so he was totally pumped to see it in action. I was surprised to see how much he knew about the gaming system and the world after reading through the Player’s Handbook 3.5 Edition I let him borrow as well. He even knew the monsters from the Monster Handbook.

The animation is still a little cartoony for today’s audience, but I was okay with it. The live-action Dungeons & Dragons movies didn’t fare so well, and this one appears to be geared for the younger crowd. The end product is a mixture of animation and 3D computer generation that looked cool at times and jarring at others. The mix wasn’t always seamless.

However, I could tell the voice actors were having a blast. I could close my eyes and imagine them all gathered around a table rolling the dice against insurmountable odds to see if they survived to fight again or if they required a visit from the cleric. All of them had to have been players at one time or another.

Dragonlance: Dragons of the Autumn Twilight isn’t a film that’s going to leave much of a ripple in the mass of filmgoers that stream into theaters or purchase DVDs, but for those of us who are dyed-in-the-wool D&D fans, the movie hits a sweet spot. It combines the world of D&D and the story of one of the best known novels in those worlds.

I had a lot of fun with the movie. It played the characters from the novels fairly and moved along at a fast clip throughout its entirety. The attention to gameplay rules was solid, and the dialogue was consistently informative and entertaining. The artwork was a little loose and cartoony at times, but the world and the action was well rendered.

I can only hope that new DVDs will be forthcoming, because this one just begins to tell the story. In fact, it even gives watchers something of a cliffhanger by showing Kitiara in the middle of evil doings. If you’re a fantasy lover, this is the kind of movie you can sit down to with your kids, enjoy a big bowl of popcorn, and regale them with all the stories of when you fought dragons and the dice were with you!

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