Well, if there’s anything that’s going to kill childhood nostalgia for a couple of generations, it’s Pixels.
If that’s an exaggeration, it just barely qualifies. There are any number of problems that plague Pixels, but at its core, the problems tend to have a common source. There’s the Happy Madison house style, and the Chris Columbus directorial style, and the two simply do not mesh.
Here’s the thing: the basic concept of this movie could actually work with the right people involved. Aliens are exposed to 80s arcade video games and interpret them as a declaration of war. They take these beloved video games and turn them against Earth, and it’s up to three former arcade champions to save humanity. These three former champions, though, find themselves adrift as adults. Brenner (Adam Sandler) is a (movie variation of a) Geek Squad member. Ludlow (Josh Gad) is a full-blown conspiracy loon. Their opponent, Eddie (Peter Dinklage), is in jail for completely legitimate reasons. The only one who’s anything resembling a success is Brenner’s best friend/cheerleader, Cooper (Kevin James), who’s now the President of the United States.
One of the biggest flaws of the film is in casting Sandler in the lead. I get that he’s a bit of a punching bag these days, and to some degree, he’s earned it. He shows promise when paired with an interesting director, which is what makes his work in Punch-Drunk Love so magnetic and his turn as a Sandler-esque comic in Funny People resonate. With that latter role in particular, there seems to be some sense of self-awareness. Then again, he followed that up with Jack and Jill, so who knows what’s going on with him. Here, the problem is that he doesn’t register as the nerd that the film insists he is. Outside of apparently being a genius with old video games, he seems like the dozens of other men-children Sandler’s played for decades now. This problem is particularly highlighted in his scenes with Violet (Michelle Monaghan), where the two exchange awkward jabs at each other as a way of signaling romantic interest (yes, it’s stupid).
But the film’s problems go well beyond Sandler (and James, who’s now similarly drifting through films). Even if Sandler were replaced with a more believable lead, there’s the problem of the script. The film opens promisingly enough, with Columbus’ direction capturing the world of an 80s arcade just right. The opening setup, which builds to Eddie beating Brenner in a head-to-head competition playing Donkey Kong, also makes the point that each of these boys has a particular specialty, which will obviously be exploited later in the film. The problem is, for this to work in the context of the main part of the film, the adults should be playing the games. When the aliens bring these games to life, though, there’s nothing to indicate that they’d be prepared to work with light cannons or specialized cars or an actual series of girders. They aren’t just playing with a joystick; they’re actually supposed to be interacting with these elements, which requires a vastly different set of skills.
Columbus also fails to bring most of the film to life, outside of the aforementioned opening scene and some of the video game sequences. Beyond that, the film is a visual dud. Columbus has become a far less frequent director this century, and it may be for the best. But with the toxic one-two punch of Sandler’s casting and the script, there was no way Columbus was going to pull this one off.
All of that said…this is not the worst Happy Madison production, and that’s mostly due to the contributions from the two lead actors who haven’t worked in Happy Madison films before. Gad and Dinklage may be doing crazy, ridiculous stuff, but they bring energy to their performances, which in turn gives the film some surreal moments that generate a few legitimate laughs. As one example, Ludlow believes that the Zapruder film was edited to hide that “JFK shot first.” Gad’s work can be grating in other films, but here, it works. And Dinklage may be ridiculous, but he’s also enough of a badass for it to work.
Still, Pixels isn’t the nostalgic trip for old-school video game enthusiasts that some may want. There are way too many problems, most of which I’ve not even touched on here. Fans of the games would be better off playing the games themselves, or watching Wreck-It Ralph.