This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Once upon a time, TSR, publishers of Dungeons & Dragons, embarked upon an ambitious project – the creation of an series of adventure modules, penned by Margaret Weis and the surprisingly male Tracy Hickman, which would allow Dungeon Masters to guide their players through an epic storyline reminiscent of mid-80s sub-Tolkien fantasy novels in the vein of Terry Brooks or Raymond E. Feist – the sort of high-plot, high-concept, story-focused play which earlier D&D products hadn’t especially catered for but which the audience increasingly wanted. Accompanying the Dragonlance modules were a series of three tie-in novels by Weis and Hickman, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Dragons of Winter Night, and Dragons of Spring Dawning, and though they were cheap and trashy they were addictive enough reading that they stormed the bestseller lists, and became the first of a veritable wave of tie-in fiction that TSR would produce. (Indeed, it’s been argued that TSR’s over-reliance on tie-in fiction contributed to its eventual collapse.)
Of all the various Dungeons & Dragons settings – and TSR produced a very great number of them – Dragonlance was something special, not because of any particular feature of the setting (which was really rather ordinary and generic), but because of the publishing phenomenon associated with it. Forgotten Realms novels did quite well – R.A. Salvatore’s novels of Drizzt Do’Urden, the renegade dark elf, in particular – but the Realms had by that point also become TSR’s most popular and well-supported setting in terms of gaming material as well, and was also the subject of more computer game adaptations. Dragonlance, by comparison, was a setting in which the novel series was unambiguously the driving force, and the gaming material followed the novels’ lead. In the mid-1990s there were negotiations between TSR and Jim Henson Productions to produce a film series of the saga, but it was not to be. It took until 2008 for the direct-to-DVD release of the first cinematic adaptation of Dragonlance – specifically, the first book of the Dragonlance Chronicles, which were the first trilogy in the series. This film is the cumbersomely-entitled Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight (A Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Tale).
The most glaringly obvious aspect of the film – aside from the sub-Tolkien plot and the generous borrowings from the Mormon faith of Tracy Hickman (pseudo-Native American tribes which include blonde-haired, blue-eyed priests of the true faith, sacred texts encoded on mystic discs lost since the dawn of time – you get the gist) is the animation style. Much of the film is in a hand-drawn style, reminiscent of 80s cartoons (although in this case very high-quality 80s cartoons – visually, it’s miles beyond the standard of, say, He-Man, Thundercats, or the original Dungeons & Dragons cartoon). However, there’s also a significant amount of CGI – mid-1990s quality CGI, which is odd, since the film came out in 2008. The mixture of the two is about as jarring as the contrast between the fully-rotoscoped and the not quite properly rotoscoped elements of Ralph Bakshi’s version of The Lord of the Rings.
What’s even more bizarre is the way it is applied. In Bakshi’s Rings, the rotoscoping started to break down when large numbers of characters were onscreen at once, the sheer task of tracing over every single individual in the scene overwhelming Bakshi’s team. In Dragons of Autumn Twilight, however, the CGI (with the exception of a few special effects, which are by and large well-integrated) is applied to specific characters consistently. To be specific, all the dragons and draconians (dragonlike humanoids) are rendered in spectacularly crappy CGI – CGI so bad that you can occasionally catch the framerate slowing down as the substandard computers it was animated on struggle to cope – and this frankly doesn’t even make sense as a time-saving measure; there are battles against goblin hordes early on, as well as highly-populated elven villages, which involve having a number of characters onscreen that are more or less of the same scale as the draconian forces. It’s almost as though they ran out of money part way through and had to resort to CGI, except that would imply they animated everyone except the dragons and draconians first and kept those until last, which seems a bizarre way to go about it.
The production values are, in short, dubious. The acting isn’t much better either. And to be honest, I’m not convinced the script or the Dragonlance novels really merit a first-class treatment. The backstory, as narrated at the beginning by Fizban (Neil Ross), is that the world of Krynn was abandoned by the Gods in a cataclysmic event, sparked by the hubris who men who felt themselves more powerful than their divine protectors. The theological quarantine of Krynn has been broken, however, by the evil goddess Takhisis (Nika Futterman), whose armies, led by loyal captains such as the villainous Lord Verminaard (David Sobolov), are rapidly conquering the world. (Verminaard, by the way, is actually dressed like a refugee from He-Man.) The story kicks off as the protagonists – half-elf ranger Tanis Half-Elven (Michael Rosenbaum), human mage Raistlin Majere (Kiefer Sutherland), human fighter Caramon Majere (Rino Romano), dwarven fighter Flint Fireforge (Fred Tatasciore), human wannabe-paladin Sturm Brightblade (Marc Worden), and kender thief Tasselhoff Burrfoot (Jason Marsden – Kender, incidentally, are just like halflings, except they’re kleptomaniacs and are incredibly irritating)…
Wait, where was I?
Ah yes, the story opens as the extremely long list of protagonists shows us the first problem the film has – the book went for an overlarge adventuring party, namely the “Companions of the Lance” (though that name isn’t used in the film because it doesn’t quite get to the part where the actual Dragonlance comes into play), presumably because they wanted to fit in all the pregenerated characters provided with the original adventure modules. It helped them inflate the page count a bit, so why not? Unfortunately, the downside of this is that the movie is trying to fit in far too many characters, and never quite succeeds in focusing on any of them to a sufficient extent because it simply doesn’t have time – Tanis has a bit of character development, Raistlin gets a tiny chunk, and everyone else has to fight for the scraps.
Anyway, his huge bunch of adventurers are all meeting up at their favourite inn in the town of Solace, having drifted around the world of Krynn seeking evidence of the return of the gods. They’re discouraged, because they haven’t found any – but then, following an unfortunate altercation in the inn when a townsman objects to Fizban telling the children stories about the gods, two mysterious strangers – Goldmoon (Lucy Lawless), cleric of the true gods, and Riverwind (Phil LaMarr) – draw attention to themselves when a blue crystal staff Goldmoon bears flares into life and heals the burns inflicted on a party to the fracas. Healing magic is a sign of the work of the gods, and this excites more than a little attention – not least from the goblin occupiers of Solace, who work for Takhisis and are determined to capture the staff on her behalf. One thing leads to another, and soon enough we are dealing with a party of no less than eight characters charging across the countryside trying to work out what to do with the staff and how to get the attention of the Gods of Light.
This is a plot that progresses through great, heavy sledgehammer blows, with magic sparkling unicorns and pegasi and elves on the side of goods and twisted horrible goblins and draconians on the side of evil. These problems were all present in the source text, but the adaptation isn’t exactly subtle either, full of comedy bickering, hilarious sidekicks, needless slapstick, scene-chewing villains and the occasional speech about believing in yourself, which only heightens the impression that we’re watching a feature-length version of an old Saturday morning cartoon. But it doesn’t speak well for the source material that I can’t really remember which parts were in the books originally and which are new or condensed in the film.
George Strayton, who adapted the novels for the script, has correctly identified the core message of the books about religious faith and about how good people who open their eyes to the truth can overcome the vile heretics who, not believing in the true scriptures as encoded in ancient discs from ancient times, serve the terrible forces of darkness. As far as messages go, it’s probably going to grate unless you actually agree with it on some level, but I would argue that giving it the extra emphasis that Strayton does was necessary; Strayton has to trim a lot in order to fit the first book into a 90 minute film, and the story ends on a cliffhanger with half the plot threads not even slightly approaching a resolution. Bringing the whole “faith” thing to the fore, and focusing on Tanis’s personal crisis of faith, at least means the film has a central narrative that is wrapped up by the end. This is probably a necessity, since I can’t see there being a sequel made to this thing. Like Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, this is just a horrible botch of a movie which will surely struggle to gain funding for a sequel; unlike Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, I don’t think it’s miles worse than the source material.