GAME OVER FOR PIXELS
Back in 2010, French native and filmmaker Patrick Jean created an animated short film titled Pixels. This short showcased the invasion of New York City by classic 8-bit video game characters such as Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and many others. Pixels went on to become a viral sensation on YouTube and Jean won Best Short Film at the 2011’s AIAFF (Annecy International Animation Film Festival). Now Sony Pictures, buying the rights to Jean’s Pixels, has taken the premise of the animated short and expanded it to a feature length film titled Pixels (keeping the same name). Is the movie worth seeing or is it already game over for this video game movie?
Back in 1982, a young gamer named Sam Brenner lost the video game championship match of “Donkey Kong” to hotshot Eddie “The Fire Blaster” Plant, crushing Brenner’s dreams of possible brilliance. As part of an experiment with NASA, a video of that championship showdown was sent into outer space (along with other reference videos and images of the 80s) as a way of glimpsing American culture to alien life. Flash forwarding to today, Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler) is a less-than-meaningful audio / video tech installer with U.S. president Cooper (Kevin James), Brenner’s childhood friend, is equally dismayed, unable to rally his citizens from being disgruntled during his presidency. Things do change for the pair when alien visitors come to Earth in the form of classic 80s arcade characters, demanding a battle with Earth’s best warriors in a series of large-than-life video game trials. As President Cooper turns to Brenner’s past knowledge of video game expertise, the former arcade wiz enters the fight to save Earth, armed with specialty weaponry provided by Lieutenant Colonel Violet (Michelle Monaghan) and calling upon former arcade masters Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), a old paranoid arcade pal and Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage), Brenner’s former rival.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Until recently, I actually heard of Patrick Jean’s Pixels. I did actually watch the animated short (prior to seeing the movie) and found it to be pretty good, considering its length of roughly two minutes long. As for the movie version of Pixels, I remember seeing the first preview and was kind of “iffy” about the movie. The nostalgia of classic arcade game was interesting, but, given it was an Adam Sandler movie (his recent track record of movie flops speaks for itself), was leery about the film itself, half-predicting that the film was going to be a flashy disappointment. After the viewing the movie, I found that Pixels, while its dose of video game nostalgia was thrilling, the movie was what I expected it to be; a shallow and bland Sandler feature film that’s more noisy than entertaining.
Director Chris Columbus, once great filmmaker who did such films as Home Alone (the 1990 original and its 1992 sequel), Mrs. Doubtfire, and the first two Harry Potter films, helms Pixels on shaky ground. Columbus is tasked on expanding upon Jean’s short into a full length movie, bringing an original story to the proceedings while also crafting a spectacle that’s both visually stunning and very cinematic to experience. True, the film’s premise (a little goofy sounding) somewhat works and is a little fun to watch large-than-life 80s video game characters invading Earth for planetary supremacy. The effects shots used to render (or pixilate) these character are actually pretty good and are cleverly designed. The mid-movie battle is probably the highlight of the feature, seeing Sandler’s Brenner and his team evade a giant Pac Man in their five MINI Coopers (fashion to look like Blink, Pinky, Inky and Clyde) in a citywide video game battle. Along with the iconic video games characters, Pixels also incorporates 80’s music into the mix. It’s interesting to hear Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend” as Sandler and Gad are attacking giant Centipedes or hearing the Queen’s “We will Rock You” during the “boss” battle against Donkey Kong.
Unfortunately, the marriage between storytelling / spectacle is very loose as its visual flair and arcade nostalgia wears thin. The story of one lowly man defending the world from video game characters seems oddly familiar (i.e. The Anthology of Interest II episode from the animated television show Futurama) and almost feels like a complete rip-off from it. The narrative of Pixels is lazy and predictable with nothing genuinely new or clever coming from Columbus, the film’s writers, or even its actors / characters, feeling like just a Happy Madison Production, but on a bigger blockbuster scale. Speaking of Happy Madison Production, the comedy aspect in Pixels is similarly found in its other movies, which is not saying much. Jokes and gags are bountiful, even in dire situations, but are poorly written and are executed blandly with not enough laughter in its intended punch line.
The main cast, while talented individuals, are dull, flat, and underwhelming in this particular movie. A prime of example of this is feature’s main character Sam Brenner played comedian actor Adam Sandler. Sandler, who was incredibly funny in past endeavors, seems to running on auto-pilot in his more recent movies. Pixels is no different, finding Sandler almost sleepwalking through his role as Brenner, rambling his lines with lethargic humdrum precision. Michelle Monaghan is definitely easy on the eyes, but her character of Violet van Patten, a weapon production designer for the government and love interest to Sandler’s Brenner, is unimportant and bland. It also doesn’t help that she and Sandler don’t share any chemistry with each other. While I do like Kevin James as an actor, he’s role as Pixels’ POTUS is underdeveloped and again just bland. Josh Gad’s Ludlow Lamonsoff has some funny moments here and there, but his character ultimately just comes off as weird and awkward (and not in a good way). Of the primary cast, only Peter Dinklage’s character Eddie Plant is strong enough to produce the most laughs in the feature as well as being the most memorable one of the bunch.
Similar to the main cast, Pixels’ supporting cast members are seasoned and talented, but their performances are small and are underdeveloped. Like a rolodex, Columbus quickly shuffles one out for a scene and hastily pulls out another one, offering only few fleeting minutes for the character to appear on-screen, even if it’s a supporting one. This includes actors Brian Cox, Sean Bean, and Jane Krakowski who could’ve made a small and memorable impact in the film, but instead just appear as flat minor stock characters. Even small cameos like the video game femme fatale Lady Lisa (played by Ashley Benson) and Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani (played by actor Denis Akiyama) are obscure / poor throwaway appearances.
Patrick Jean’s Pixels was a fun and interesting short, but Chris Columbus’s Pixels isn’t. Its concept (outlandish as it may be) is intriguing, its visuals are good and cleverly utilized, and the movie is filled with 80s arcade nostalgia. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much it on the positive side. Its story is predictable, its characters are shallow and uninteresting, and its comedic jokes are (for the most part) flat-out not funny. While many critics and fans have already panned the movie, I personally have to agree with them. It’s not the “worst movie I’ve ever seeing” (as some are making it out to be), but Pixels is just a bad movie. Plain and simple.