All throughout Pixels, I only questioned one thing. I wasn’t bothered by the fact that mysterious light aliens would somehow challenge Earth to video game-themed duels to the death, or why the military decided that 80’s arcade champions are the only solution to the problem, nor was I even bothered by the reckless disregard for actual video game mechanics in several places. The only thing I managed to question is, who in their right mind would vote for Kevin James as president?!
That’s the thing about Pixels. Its premise is such a perfect blend of imagination and ludicrousness that moviegoers can no doubt forgive the fact that the movie really doesn’t make much sense. What moviegoers can’t forgive however is Happy Madison unfortunately getting their mitts on it, and turning a promising adaptation of a fantastic short film into a typical modern Happy Madison fiasco. Making matters worse is the fact that Happy Madison’s crew doesn’t seem to have anything but the most rudimentary knowledge of the video games that their movie is trying to spoof, and that hurts the expected draw for hardcore gamers of both the modern and past eras who are eager to see another high-quality video game spoof that’s at least comparable with something like Disney’s brilliant Wreck-It Ralph from 2012.
This leaves Pixels with a heavy aftertaste of lost potential, being a shallow, half-hearted satire of a rich, ever-expanding entertainment medium that Hollywood just hasn’t figured out how to adequately tap yet. To be fair though, Pixels is at least one of Happy Madison’s better movies of recent years, not exactly being unfunny, even if it remains an undeniable disappointment, especially for avid video game enthusiasts.
Better still doesn’t necessarily equal good, I’m afraid. Happy Madison’s latest still feels too simple-minded and out-of-touch compared to competing comedies, even when they have a premise as great as this one behind them, even though they’ve still made at least a small improvement in quality with Pixels, and I suppose that’s worth some faint praise.
Pixels stars Adam Sandler as former video game champion, Sam Brenner, now a fortysomething doofus working as a tech setup specialist, and as a walking Sony PlayStation ad. Seriously, Sony, just because it’s a video game-themed movie, that doesn’t mean you need to cram in a bunch of horrendously obnoxious PlayStation 4 product placement all over the place! Anyway, Brenner is the former champion of Pac-Man from when he was a kid in the 80’s, and he also happens to be best friends with the President of the United States. Because Happy Madison.
The President, Will Cooper, is played by Kevin James, again, because Happy Madison. ‘Coop’, as he’s called by his friends, apparently sucks at video games, but was a master of claw games, which comes into play in one extremely weak pay-off later in the movie, and is otherwise never mentioned again, contrary to what the marketing would have you believe. James is instead left to bumble around and not really do much of anything, alongside his First Lady, played by a criminally wasted Jane Krakowski, who is literally only in the movie to add another name comedian to the cast, despite the fact that she barely speaks three lines. James doesn’t actively participate in the movie’s events until the climax, and even then, he’s firmly overshadowed by Sandler, who is predictably made out to be the big hero.
Despite expecting that James would be Sandler’s sidekick, that role instead goes to Josh Gad, playing a socially awkward and painfully overdone 80’s gamer man-child stereotype, in the form of Centipede champion, Ludlow Lamonsoff. Ludlow is also a conspiracy theorist, which is his only defining personality trait, beyond being a painful stereotype with a creepy fixation on a fictional 80’s video game heroine, and naturally, the movie abandons that part of his personality once his idiotic conspiracy theory about the aliens is naturally proven correct. Gad at least does his best in the part, but he really needs to get a better agent, between this and his equally cringe-inducing turn in this past January’s highly underwhelming comedy, The Wedding Ringer.
On the other side of the spectrum is female lead, Michelle Monaghan, who plays a no-nonsense military colonel, but is once again given an inexplicable hodgepodge of a personality that makes her an initial foil to Adam Sandler, before becoming a forced love interest that suddenly finds Brenner charming past a certain point in the runtime, for no real reason. Monaghan also has a son, who doesn’t seem to serve any real purpose in the story, beyond being a transparent plot device for both the intro and the climax. Beyond that, he doesn’t seem to have a consistent character profile either.
Fortunately, at least one actor manages to steal the movie and run with it, and that’s Peter Dinklage, playing over-the-top asshole Donkey Kong champion and Brenner’s childhood rival, Eddie ‘Fireblaster’ Plant. Eddie is blatantly a satire of real-life video game champion, Billy Mitchell, who is known to have a similarly bad personality. This, along with Dinklage’s well-calculated overdone delivery, is the closest that Pixels comes to being genuinely clever, even if Eddie’s character is still occasionally tripped up by some woefully bad and lazy writing, and trust me, you’ll know it when you see it.
The rest of the cast comes and goes with little bearing on events, including some surprising bit parts from the likes of name actors like Brian Cox, Sean Bean and Dan Aykroyd, who are all clearly collecting easy paycheques. Denis Akiyama even has a very amusing, scene-stealing sequence portraying a fictionalized version of Pac-Man creator, Toru Iwatani, which was unfortunately given away in all of the trailers. None of it really leaves much of an impression though, and it’s easy to feel like a better cast, and most certainly a better script, would have made this premise as memorable in execution as it is in concept.
Pixels has a great idea behind it, where humankind sends a time capsule into space in 1982, which contains elements of our culture, including the then-modern arcade video games. When aliens misinterpret the video games as a declaration of war however, they respond in kind by creating real-life arcade game monsters that humans must now fight to preserve the human race. It sounds like a great idea for an action-comedy, right?
Well, unfortunately, Pixels has a rather faulty script, and that’s most prevalent when it comes to the portrayal of the aliens. The aliens are supposed to be mis-interpreting the video games, which the early marketing even indicated at length, but in the final movie, they seem to understand video games perfectly, as they challenge humankind to a best-two-out-of-three video game competition, unfolding in real life. That makes the premise come apart immediately, because it makes the aliens’ motivations and psychology too ill-defined and inconsistent. It would have been better, and probably funnier, had they just been straightforward invaders that found amusing ways to justify how humans ‘accidentally’ declared war on them.
The premise really comes apart for the climax as well, which suddenly throws out the rules that shouldn’t have been there to begin with, and finally starts to realize some of the funny, action-packed potential of the premise. Unfortunately, this comes too little, too late, and results in a bunch of half-assed resolutions for all of the lead characters, which really demonstrate that the writers clearly didn’t give a shit by that point.
Like I said though, Pixels isn’t wholly unfunny, at least. It has some decently amusing dialogue, it has some jokes that are executed well, and it does occasionally tap into some pretty funny action sequences. It’s just not enough to elevate what’s largely a flimsy, thankless script though. This definitely isn’t another Jack and Jill-level disaster, but it’s also certainly not the second coming of Happy Madison, who still feel like they’re stuck in the 90’s, and aren’t able to apply this movie’s great premise in a way that feels fresh, modern or subversive, and that’s really a shame when this Summer has already seen great spoof-flavoured comedies like Pitch Perfect 2, Spy and Trainwreck.
Surprisingly, Happy Madison managed to get a somewhat high-profile director for Pixels, that being Chris Columbus. Columbus has a body of work that’s well suited to something like Pixels, having helmed the first two Harry Potter movies, the first two Home Alone movies, The Goonies, and Mrs. Doubtfire, among other solid offerings, though he did also hit a couple of low points, like the dismal I Love You, Beth Cooper. Pixels certainly isn’t Columbus’ worst work, and Columbus does manage to give the movie some sense of tongue-in-cheek scale, which is far better than you would expect from a current movie with the Happy Madison stamp.
Considering his pedigree though, Columbus has definitely done better than Pixels. Columbus is clearly struggling with the slapdash script, doing what he can with many of the big set pieces, and often being at his best during the all-important video game duels, which do feel fun and explosive, as they should. The character-driven moments however, which come more frequently than you would think, often feel inert, and there’s a few really ill-conceived plot turns that Columbus just seems to throw up his hands with.
To his credit though, Columbus does give Pixels some solid production value, and more than Happy Madison has had in many years. The action scenes are nicely manic, and shot quite well, effectively unfolding from dynamic angles, and even creating some genuinely thrilling edge-of-your-seat moments at times. It’s still nothing that compares to the many fantastic dedicated action blockbusters that this Summer has spoiled audiences with, but it at least manages to make Pixels reasonably fun for undemanding viewers, even if still shaky in its execution.
As much as Happy Madison movies tend to disappoint on a regular basis, at least their soundtracks are actually not bad in several cases. Pixels is yet another instance of the score actually being one of the best parts of the movie, particularly since it’s littered with effectively-placed 80’s rock anthems, which feel true to the time period, and do complement the arcade-style action pretty well. The rest of the soundtrack is pretty lethargic orchestra, but when the licensed 80’s tunes come into play, that’s when the illusion of Pixels feels most complete, at least in terms of the presentation.
The rest of the soundtrack is also pretty well-realized. The action scenes actually feel pretty intense, surprisingly so, with the pixel monsters flying around with some surprisingly intimidating audio work, making them truly feel alive and dangerous. Likewise, when they’re destroyed, the explosion of pixels feels oddly believable, with the bloodless, light-hearted violence unfolding as it would in a vintage video game, having injured humans and destroyed aliens both collapsing in piles of light blocks. Even though the action is clearly played for laughs, the bizarre threat still feels real, and that’s what makes Pixels engaging to listen to, even when its script and performances fall short.
Pixels boasts some surprisingly impressive effects work, which manages to derive some solid humour from putting pixelated arcade sprites into the real world. Some of the digitized game characters look better than others, with the highlight being an enormous, deadly version of Pac-Man that rampages through New York (and again, was unfortunately given away at length in every trailer), but most of them actually look surprisingly lifelike and believable. The climax is the best showcase of the movie’s core idea as well, which is a smorgasbord of retro arcade gaming easter eggs, and a well-realized, grand-scale battle that makes mankind feel hopelessly, yet also hilariously, doomed.
I also made sure to see Pixels in 3D, and while the 3D effect isn’t spectacular, it is quite good, and it does enhance several key scenes pretty nicely. Certain specialized theatres do offer IMAX 3D showings of Pixels, but these are very rare, and are only held in very high-tier theatre locations, with the advertising not even mentioning IMAX 3D cuts, so most moviegoers will merely have the choice between regular 3D and 2D showings. Those preferring to watch the movie in 2D aren’t missing a whole lot, but 3D viewings definitely deliver the most out of the experience, which have a nicely tongue-in-cheek 80’s feel in the 3D effects, complete with pixels appearing to tumble out of the screen, and objects sometimes appearing to poke out at the audience. Be advised though that the 3D version of the movie does contain some sloppy filtering, with some scene transitions appearing murky and shaky, which is clear evidence of a somewhat hasty post-production conversion.
Despite its narrative shortcomings, Pixels at least feels like a reasonably polished comedy blockbuster. The effective pixel designs do easily set it apart from other movies, and even when the story gets faulty, at least the action scenes are generally easy and fun to watch, making Pixels visually stimulating in its big action sequences, even if the rest of it feels rather flimsy.
Pixels feels uneven and underwhelming for the most part. The technical polish and effects are pretty good, especially in regards to the better-than-expected 3D presentation, but the script is really faulty, and the performances often feel confused and/or detached, with the exception of Peter Dinklage, who is easily the winning personality here. If you’re expecting the feature film adaptation of Pixels to live up to the original Pixels short film that went viral, you’re going to be disappointed, since the short film definitely turned out better.
As far as Happy Madison goes though, Pixels is at least a small improvement for the often-maligned studio, and, for what it’s worth, this is their best movie in many years, even if it’s still nothing to write home about. It’s still well beneath Sandler’s 90’s high points of Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison, but considering Happy Madison’s sorry modern movie catalogue, culminating in the horrendous Crackle-exclusive sequel, Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser most recently, Pixels is at least a small step in the right direction. The same script issues and Sandler’s enormously bloated ego still get in the way at most turns, but at least Pixels has some truly funny moments, and its big action set pieces are at least well-realized.
Whether or not I can recommend Pixels is a trickier question though. Video game enthusiasts will find the movie to be shallow and half-baked in terms of its satire, while those looking for a great comedy movie have plenty of better options right now. Taken as a blend of action and comedy though, Pixels is a decent recommendation, as long as you’re not expecting the world from it, and you firmly understand that it’s a Happy Madison movie, so don’t expect it to be terribly grounded.
With adjusted expectations, you may yet have some fun with Pixels. After Wreck-It Ralph though, it is probably fair to expect at least a little more from our video game-themed comedies.
- Some reasonably funny moments
- Action scenes are fun and well-directed
- Pixel-themed effects are great, especially in 3D
- Writing is faulty and inconsistent
- Save for Dinklage, performances range from confused to lethargic
- Video game satire is shallow and weak