Like the “average” summer movie fare, Pixels has good stuff and bad stuff. Like most films that want to be profitable and seen as a “hit” in the eyes of the public, the question must that must be asked is “does the good stuff outweigh the bad stuff?” If you’re an eager pre-teen movie-goer, a parent of an eager pre-teen movie-goer, or a thirtysomething who really digs some deep-reaching retro references, then Pixels is probably right up your alley. And if you don’t fall into one of those categories? Well, let’s just say that your princess might be in another castle.
Adam Sandler is billed as the star of the film, but with the cast list also including Kevin James, Josh Gad, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, and Bryan Cox, it’s genuinely hard to say who the most “bankable” star of the movie truly is. With Sandler’s production company, Happy Madison, sharing credit for this film with director Chris Columbus’ 1492 Pictures, Sandler obviously ended up with the top PR spot. Pixels is based on a two-and-a-half-minute short film of the same name, released in 2010 – go check it out on YouTube, it’s really quite entertaining. So now, of course, we all must wonder: was a 100-minute slapstick comedy “expansion” story really warranted?
In the motion picture, the plot itself is fairly straightforward: in 1982, NASA sends a “time capsule” type probe into deep space in an attempt to communicate with aliens – and it succeeds in its mission. Unfortunately, the aliens took the pop-culture references in the capsule, specifically the arcade-style video games, as a challenge of “friendly” competition (and by “friendly,” of course, I mean the loser forfeits their planet, because reasons). Three of the top competitors from the 1982 World Video Game Championships – Sandler’s lifelong-underachiever Sam Brenner, Gad’s twitchy conspiracy-theorist Ludlow Lamonsoff, and Dinklage’s low-threat convict Eddie “Fireblaster” Plant – get called into service by Brenner’s lifelong friend and now-POTUS Will Cooper (Kevin James… I know, I know, more on this in a bit) to, well, save the world and stuff. Moments of sporadic hilarity ensue.
I don’t want to sound too harsh on this movie, because I did find myself enjoying a sizable amount of it. It’s easily Sandler’s best acting work in over a decade; how much weight that statement carries, however, is relative. With Pixels being a Happy Madison picture, you know that you’re in for many moments of WTF-style comedy, and this film definitely does have those. By seeing classic video game character Q*Bert (one of my all-time favorites, for the record) urinate, gender-swap, and actually speak English (something he never did in his game) with the annoying auto-tune of someone sucking too much helium, you know where this movie lives on the dumb-comedy scale. In my personal opinion, a new Sandler movie these days is like watching an episode of Family Guy from the show’s 10th season: funny, yes, but not nearly as entertaining as what it once was when it was fresh and new.
There were genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Josh Gad is a particular comedic highlight, and his scene of going from frightened man-child to idiot-savant drill instructor in front of a group of Navy SEALs is pure nonsensical joy. Dinklage fights his way through a ridiculous southern (?) American accent to score some seriously funny lines, especially those surrounding his somewhat-unorthodox mental choices for a menage a trois. Brian Cox and Sean Bean are sorely underutilized as a sourpuss military generals who, God bless them, just want to be in charge and blow stuff up.
We have to come back to it, because I told you I would, so let’s just put it out there: in a movie about intelligent extraterrestrial life that chooses to attack us via 8-bit fictitious characters, the most ridiculous and unbelievable point of Pixels is, indeed, the fact that Paul Blart is the President of the United States. I mean… come on now. We’ve made some dumb decisions on who to put into the Oval Office over the course of our history (not naming any names, as this ain’t gonna turn into no political debate), but the fact that the leader of the free world is not only this guy, but he just happens to have a bestie that’s perfectly equipped to handle this interstellar crisis is even more convenient than the average Hollywood movie “twist.”
Again, I don’t want to come across as harping on the film, because in an “overall” sense, I enjoyed my viewing of it. Granted, I do fall into one of the categories I mentioned in the first paragraph, but the audience in my sneak preview seemed to enjoy Pixels as well; there were actually multiple instances of the audience clapping as “good” things happened throughout the film, and applause again at the rolling of the credits, something that hasn’t happened a lot at screenings I’ve attended over the last few years. Classic video gamers will likely be entertained just by counting the references they can find in the film; among the more obvious (Pac-Man, Galaga, Space Invaders, Centipede, Asteroid, Frogger, Pong, Q*Bert, and the like), there are a ton of “deeper cuts” that eagle-eyed viewers can be on the lookout for (make no mistake – that Paperboy likes to throw that newspaper!).
So, we’re brought back to the question: does the good outweigh the bad in Pixels? Well, as with most modern entertainment fare, that’s ultimately for you to decide. The movie won’t be winning any major awards, make no mistake about that – but if the laughter of children (or your own inner kid) and the nostalgic appreciation of the arcade video-game era gone by is what you’re after, then maybe that’s the achievement the film can receive instead.