Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

It’s been surprisingly difficult to make a good adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons. In the years since the classic table-top roleplaying game was released in 1974 there have been several attempts; the 1983 animated TV series was fun, but barely resembled the game itself, while the 2000 live action version starring Justin Whalin was critically reviled and commercially disastrous, although it did spawn a series of straight-to-DVD sequels. This new film, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, is an attempt to finally – finally – convey the fun, excitement, and imagination of the game for movie audiences; it stars Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page, Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis, and Hugh Grant, and was written and directed by self-proclaimed D&D nerds Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley; it’s a classic fantasy story set in a medieval world full of knights, wizards, rogues and thieves, and features a quest for treasure, numerous battles, and wonderous creatures a-plenty.

The score for Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves is by Lorne Balfe, who is having an incredibly busy period – already in 2023 he has released scores for the Chinese film Ping Pong: The Triumph, the action thriller Luther: The Fallen Sun, and the film about the creation of the classic video game Tetris, and he has Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One and the TV series Argylle on his docket for later this year. Balfe apparently played D&D in his youth, and was eager to take on this assignment. Films of this high concept fantasy type often come with a set of predetermined musical expectations – when he was scoring the first Dungeons & Dragons movie in 2000 composer Justin Caine Burnett was told to ape John Williams generally, and Raiders of the Lost Ark specifically – but what’s really interesting about this score is that Balfe was seemingly given a much broader canvas to work with.

There are plenty of nods to classic orchestral fantasy adventure music, of course, but Balfe also explores some very different sounds: he finds ways to channel medieval folk music for Chris Pine’s character Edgin, there are some pieces of Celtic-style music featuring bagpipes, some more contemporary stylings with a stronger electronic edge, and some very unusual and unexpected vocal effects that range from Latin chanting and singing to breathy huffing and puffing, and even what sounds like throat singing. All in all, this is a mixed bag of styles and approaches, and although Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves definitely had the potential to be a mess, Balfe actually somehow managed to turn this into an interesting, surprising, very entertaining work.

There are several recurring themes at work in the score, but two really stand out above all others: the main overarching theme for the band of adventurers led by Edgin, and the theme for the evil ‘Red Wizard’ Sofina, whose influence over the story becomes more apparent as the narrative progresses. The main theme actually doesn’t properly kick in until the sixth cue, “Dungeons and Dragons,” but when it does it’s a welcome development. It’s a bright, heroic piece that moves from brass to bagpipes to strings, all underpinned with a set of light and optimistic percussion rhythms. It really captures the sense of adventure inherent in the story and, as the score progresses, Balfe cleverly inserts it into action sequences and more emotional scenes, illustrating the idea that the band of friends is the heart and cornerstone of the story.

A lot of the early part of the score is quite pretty and uplifting. The opening cue, “I Wasn’t Always a Thief, features a lyrical, Renaissance-style theme for lilting woodwinds, guitars, and How to Train Your Dragon-style bagpipes, which speak to the idea that Edgin is a bard, with a penchant for writing original tunes and bursting out into song. Similar music anchors “Journey to Neverwinter,” “Finding Zia” and “Reunited with Kira” are tender and pretty and feature gentle writing for harps and strings and choir, while “Thick as Thieves” features some magical choral writing and has a wonderful symphonic sweep full of heraldic energy in the action-oriented second half.

The first of the score’s main action sequences comprises “Korrin’s Keep” and “Escape the Tower,” a flashback to a scene where Edgin teams up with barbarian Holga (Rodriguez), amateur sorcerer Simon (Smith), and rogue Forge Fitzwilliam (Grant) to raid a stronghold and steal a magical tablet that could resurrect Edgin’s wife. Balfe’s writing is unusual in the way it juxtaposes light and heavy textures simultaneously – pizzicato strings and rampaging percussion, backed by synth effects and chorales – but it’s really interesting. In fact, one of the best things about the score overall is its instrumental creativity, and the way Balfe has fun playing with orchestrations, as well as offering interesting rhythmic ideas and unexpected textures.

Other cues of note include the misleadingly pretty and beguiling “Forge Begins,” the challenging electronic dissonances in “Into the Floor,” and the dancing, frantic, nimble action in “Magic Show Melee,” which features effervescent harpsichords, fiddles, and chanted vocals. “Owl Bear” introduces a staccato brass motif that appears to be related to Sophia Lillis’s character Doric, and elfin druid, and the choral textures that accompany her have a Howard Shore-style Lord of the Rings vibe in the phrasing of the choir, which was likely intentional, and which continue on into the subsequent “Doric’s Story”.

Balfe starts to veer into horror territory in the mid-album sequence beginning with “Szass Tam’s Story,” which is part of a scene where the sorcerer Simon attempts to briefly resurrect an undead ‘lich’ whom he believes can help lead the party to a long-hidden artifact. “Szass Tam’s Story” is scary, full of breathing/groaning ideas, grating electronics and low, growling strings, while the subsequent “Down at the Cemetery” is both creepy and curiously playful; Balfe uses clattering bone and glass percussion textures, scraping/creaking noises, and some shrill string stingers, but then plays them against lightly whimsical woodwind lines that flutter friskily. This is another example of Balfe being creative with his simultaneous light and heavy textures; it makes for fascinating listening.

“Wizardry” offers the first full performance of the aforementioned Red Wizard theme, which is anchored by an eerie, serpentine vocal performance by Suzanne Waters. As the score progresses, this motif becomes much more prominent, as Sofina’s power grows and her nefarious plan unfolds. Conversely, “Xenk” introduces the theme for Rege-Jean Page’s character Xenk Yendar, a stoic and brave paladin who joins Edgin’s group. Xenk’s Theme is a little mysterious, a little haunting, but also noble and determined, with strong horns and elegant vocals.

The second of the score’s main action sequences underscores the ‘Underdark’, a network of subterranean caverns that reportedly houses the ‘Helm of Disjunction,’ a magical artifact that the group needs to complete their quest. After a warm version of the main theme in “Swear to It” the sequence begins properly in “The Underdark,” which contains some of the score’s most interesting electronic writing, bubbling and churning under the orchestra in a way that comes across like a cross between Krzysztof Penderecki and Daft Punk. “The Ruckus” is an explosion of action energy featuring more of that contemporary electronica, but this time with a prominent guest appearance from the Red Wizard Theme. “Themberchaud” builds to a brilliant finale full of big orchestral lines, Latin chanting, electric guitars, and grand references to the main theme, as the heroes face off against the eponymous red dragon. The bagpipe reprise of the main theme in “Swim to the Beach” is filled with relief, while the final statement of Xenk’s theme in “Goodbye Xenk” is appropriately dignified.

The third of the score’s main action sequences underscores the film’s finale where the adventurers – having successfully acquired the ‘Helm of Disjunction’ – attempt to infiltrate Forge’s castle during a gladiatorial-style games tournament, only to realize that Sofina’s plan is much more horrifying than they could have imagined. “Never Stop Failing” contains the best in-score presentation of the main theme; it’s emotionally complex, appealingly thematic, and builds to a lovely soaring finale. The subsequent “The Heist” is a terrific set piece that is whimsical and caper-like, but edgy and nervous, all at the same time – more of that Balfe tonal juxtaposition. It is filled with rattling textures, little woodwind phrases, dance-like fiddles, and increasingly florid rhythmic ideas that include chanted vocals, punchy and forceful, full of sharp syllables, that remind me a little bit of Daniel Pemberton’s score for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. These stylistics then continue into the equally fascinating “Into the Castle,” which takes all the elements from the previous cue, but then adds more belligerent percussion, bubbling electronica, some lyrical Celtic influences, and an aggressive vocal performance by Tori Letzler that veers from shouting to whispering and back again. Like much of the score, it sounds like it should be a mess, but it’s actually intriguing.

“Simon Does It” has a superb heroic reprise of the main theme. “Sofina’s Trickery” starts pleasantly, almost romantically, but turns dark and menacing in its second half, with more statements of the Red Wizard Theme. “The Maze” begins with a deconstructed version of the main theme amid a host of eerie textures, tension-filled and suspenseful, but picks up its pace in the second half. “Sorry Forge” features even more superb statements of the main theme, as well as some notably dashing flute runs. “Turn the Ship Around” finds both the Red Wizard theme and the Main Theme embedded into a longer action cue that features some epic choral writing and prominent bagpipes. The conclusive “Final Battle” is as thunderous as one would expect – huge orchestra, electronics and choir – and is especially notable for the reprise of the Doric/Owl Bear motif from earlier in the score, some frenetic writing for brass and strings, and the big statement of the Main Theme in the cue’s conclusion as the group defeats Sofina and completes its quest.

The final three cues are more intimate and dramatic. “A Red Wizard’s Blade” is the score’s emotional high point, a lament for the apparent death of a main character; Balfe uses beautifully stylish strings, an elegant pennywhistle, and lovely Celtic chord progressions to offer a sense of respectful sadness to the scene. However, the subsequent happy ending in “The Reawakening” is magical, a wash of soaring strings and angelic chorus. The conclusive “Forge’s Tale” underscores the film’s tongue-in cheek and ironic final scene, where the newly captured and penitent Forge is sent to the same prison that Edgin was in at the beginning of the movie; Balfe ends things with a final choral flourish, a statement of the main theme for optimistic woodwinds, and a cheeky reprise of the renaissance lute theme from the first cue.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves is a fun score, entertaining and engaging, with plenty of bold action, appropriate emotion, and fascinating sonic ideas. That’s not to say that the score is without issues, though, because there are several. Firstly, at more than 90 minutes, the album is way too long, and those without the patience to sit through the score’s less crowd-pleasing middle section could find the whole thing to be a slog. In this era of digital releases soundtrack albums have become longer and longer, unencumbered by the limitations of how much music a CD can hold, and as such the standard thinking is ‘put all of it out and let the listeners create their own playlists’. While I can appreciate how some would find this appealing, personally I find myself mourning the loss of the carefully-curated 50-60 minute album, where composers and producers actually thought about the best listening experience for the consumer. There is an outstanding 60 minute album here, but it’s lost in more than half an hour of too much ‘filler,’ and if I still gave out star ratings, this fact alone would drop it down by one.

Also, and although I have talked about thematic content at length, I still found some of Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves’s themes not well defined and a little amorphous. The main theme and Red Wizard themes are prominent, but there are also (or, at least, appear to be) character themes for Forge, Doric, Xenk, Simon, Holga, and the relationship between Edrin and his daughter Kia, that only really appear prominently once or twice, or which I couldn’t really pick out at all. I assume that many of these themes and motifs appear embedded in the action music, cropping up whenever one or more characters do something notably heroic, but they never really identify themselves strongly enough, and as such I struggled to pull them out and understand the musical relationships between them. It’s a shame, because had the thematic architecture of the score been clearer, I would have had a much deeper appreciation for what Balfe was trying to do.

However, despite all this, I still enjoyed Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves a lot. As I said, it’s a bold, exciting, energetic, creative fantasy action score which – along with The Tomorrow War, Black Widow, Rumble, His Dark Materials, and others – is allowing the Lornaissance to continue apace.

Note: the soundtrack album does not include Tame Impala’s end credits song “Wings of Time,” which was instead released separately as a digital single.

Buy the Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • I Wasn’t Always a Thief (0:58)
  • Finding Zia (1:36)
  • Thick as Thieves (2:59)
  • Korrin’s Keep (2:23)
  • Escape the Tower (0:45)
  • Dungeons and Dragons (1:35)
  • Journey to Neverwinter (1:04)
  • Reunited with Kira (1:08)
  • Forge Begins (0:44)
  • Sofina Starts (0:25)
  • That’s Why You Came Back (1:29)
  • Into the Floor (1:58)
  • Execution Escape (0:49)
  • Be Gone (1:29)
  • Magic Show Melee (1:16)
  • Owl Bear (1:38)
  • Doric’s Story (0:50)
  • Szass Tam’s Story (0:52)
  • Wizardry (1:46)
  • Gwynn (1:07)
  • Down at the Cemetery (4:23)
  • Xenk (1:16)
  • Thayan Flahback (1:30)
  • Swear to It (1:22)
  • The Underdark (3:11)
  • Unlock the Helmet (1:38)
  • The Ruckus (1:43)
  • Themberchaud (2:37)
  • Trapped (1:29)
  • Swim to the Beach (0:38)
  • Goodbye Xenk (0:50)
  • Helmet Attuning (1:20)
  • Remembering You (1:08)
  • Never Stop Failing (3:10)
  • The Heist (2:32)
  • Forge’s Speech (1:42)
  • Into the Castle (2:25)
  • Simon Does It (2:04)
  • Sofina’s Trickery (2:48)
  • Entering the Arena (1:55)
  • The Maze (4:58)
  • Beneath the Maze (1:14)
  • Sorry Forge (2:43)
  • Turn the Ship Around (3:22)
  • Final Battle (4:13)
  • Fallen Foe (0:45)
  • A Red Wizard’s Blade (3:30)
  • The Reawakening (1:29)
  • Forge’s Tale (1:31)

Running Time: 90 minutes 43 seconds

Mercury Classics (2023)

Music composed by Lorne Balfe. Conducted by Peter Rotter. Orchestrations by Adam Price, Harry Brokensha, James Yan, Aaron King and Jack McKenzie. Additional music by Adam Price, Brandon Campbell, Stuart Thomas, Peter Adams, Steven Davis and Joshua Pacey. Special vocal performances by Tori Letzler and Suzanne Waters. Recorded and mixed by Scott Smith and Jason La Rocca. Edited by Allegra De Souza, Amanda Goodpaster, Alex Gibson and Christopher Kaller. Album produced by Lorne Balfe.

  1. Michael
    April 5, 2023 at 11:35 am

    Great review, Jon. I assume the fact that the score has 6 additional co-composers might hurt the score which is why some themes aren’t clear enough on some cues and why some cues are like filler.

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