(Correction: it's the best LIVE-ACTION Adam Sandler vehicle in recent years, as although I wasn't a huge fan of "Hotel Transylvania," it's far and away the comedian's best offering in close to a decade.)
But that speaks more to the anemic quality of Sandler's current filmography than to any of this film's merits, as "Pixels," while not without some charm, is really something of a dud. In many ways, the film is a far cry from the usual Happy Madison--Sandler's long-time production company--offering, as it contains elaborate special effects, a high-concept plot, and a relatively big name director (Chris Columbus, who helmed "Home Alone," the first two "Harry Potter" movies, and the first "Percy Jackson" movie, among others).
But what it's missing is humor, and that's a pretty key component...especially when you have a plot as bizarrely outrageous as this.
The movie opens in 1982 and we're introduced to three young friends named Sam, Cooper, and Ludlow. Sam and Ludlow are proficiently skilled at arcade games and, as such, they compete in the video game championships where they are defeated by long-time champion Eddie Plant. Footage of the competition is included in a time capsule of the year and then launched into space so that extra-terrestrials can get a glimpse of how things are on Earth. (I have no idea if this was actually a thing. I always thought time capsules were buried in the ground so they could be dug up decades later.)
Fast forward 33 years, and Sam (Sandler) is a technician for a cable and home-theater company, Cooper (Kevin James) is the President of the United States (yeah, I didn't really see that one coming either), and Ludlow (Josh Gad) is a paranoid conspiracy theorist who lives in his grandmother's basement. The three come together once again when the world comes under attack by aliens. It seems they've come into contact with the time capsule that was launched all those years ago, but they've interpreted it as a declaration of war, and as their weapons of battle, they've created...giant, sentient versions of the classic arcade video game characters to destroy the world's cities.
Yeah, um...I don't really know what to say. I've always been a proponent of granting a movie its premise, but even I'm having kind of a hard time with this one. You're not supposed to apply logic to such scenarios, but I just can't help it; for starters, it seems awfully foolish of the aliens to use weapons that their enemies are familiar with, which they would've clearly seen in the time capsule. After all, the video game championship was all about people WINNING at these games. This just isn't a very good battle strategy.
Clearly the plot is just meant to be a thin clothesline for the set-pieces involving the giant, pixelated alien-controlled enemies. It didn't surprise me to learn that "Pixels" was based on a two-minute short film which basically consisted of the video game characters attacking New York City, and that was it. You don't really need an explanation for events in a short film, particularly one running so brief. If you try to expand on such a simple premise, you get this weirdo storyline involving aliens.
I wouldn't be harping on this so much if the movie had made me laugh, but "Pixels" is surprisingly dry. Much of Sandler's recent output has been borderline insulting, and while there isn't anything here approaching that level of awfulness-it's a pretty soft PG-13 rating, particularly for Sandler; it's about as "family friendly" as he can get (again, apart from "Hotel Transylvania")-nothing about it really tickled my funny bone either. Josh Gad has a few amusing moments, and Peter Dinklage, as the adult version of Eddie Plant, is probably the best thing in the movie. But Michelle Monaghan is wasted as the "love interest," and the great Brian Cox blusters his way through the role of a stock, blowhard army general whom the movie keeps implying is going to play a bigger part than he ends up playing. It's all pretty dull, and for the most part, this is a pretty laugh-free event.
To be completely fair, unlike most Sandler fare, "Pixels" is more of a special effects-infused adventure as it is an outright comedy, but even then the results are middling. Some of the set-pieces are engaging enough. I particularly liked the Pac-Man segment, in which the characters drive around in little colored coupes and attempt to catch the giant yellow muncher. (Their cars are stand-ins for Pac-Man's ghostly enemies.) There's also a sequence involving Donkey Kong hurling barrels at the characters that worked pretty well, even if Sam breaks the rules of the original game here.
But these are amusing moments of diversion in an otherwise languid affair, and there's really nothing about "Pixels" that renews my faith in Sandler's flagging filmography. There's nothing really atrocious or offensive here, but there's also none of the impish, anarchic sense of absurdity found in his earlier films like "Happy Gilmore" and especially "Billy Madison." Considering the storyline of "Pixels," this could've been a prime opportunity for Sandler to let loose again, but in a way that isn't insulting to audiences' intelligence. But this is all just bland and uninspired. You want a movie with a retro arcade-y like feel, stick with "Wreck-It Ralph."