Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Peter Dinklage
Directed by: Chris Columbus (“Home Alone”)
Written by: Tim Herlihy (“Happy Gilmore”) and Timothy Dowling (“Just Go With It”)
Sure, the big-screen’s “Pixels” is ostensibly based on a short film of the same name, a glorified demo reel that features classic arcade characters attacking New York City, but in reality the film is a rip-off and re-skinning of four superior products that came before it. Take the “aliens misunderstand vintage media as how Earth really works” inciting incident from “Galaxy Quest,” season liberally with the crumbs of classic video game nostalgia left behind by “Wreck-It Ralph,” hint at the underdog spirit of the guy who just can’t beat the brash, be-mulleted bad guy in “The King of Kong,” lift, well, pretty much the entire plotline of one segment of an anthology episode of “Futurama”—called “Raiders of the Lost Arcade”—and toss in an indifferent, fading movie star in Adam Sandler and you’ve got the recipe for “Pixels,” a boring excuse for a summer movie that thinks talking about Donkey Kong or Pac-Man appearing on screen as they appear on screen is entertainment in and of itself.
The movie begins somewhat promisingly in 1982, when young Sam Brenner (Anthony Ippolito here, Adam Sandler as an adult) and his best pals Will Cooper (Jared Riley, grown up as Kevin James) and Ludlow Lamonsoff (Jacob Shinder, Josh Gad grown up) ruled the local arcade with their skills. Sam was so good, in fact, that he was able to compete in the video game world championship that year, only to lose his Donkey Kong game in the finals to Eddie Plant (Andrew Bambridge as a kid, Peter Dinklage as an adult), a flashy, arrogant video game rock star. Thirty something years later, Sam never really recovered, living his existence as a lowly flat screen TV installer instead of doing something meaningful with his life. That all changes, though, when Cooper—now the goddamn President of the United States, for some reason—calls upon Sam’s expertise to battle video game villains who somehow mistook a time capsule video of classic arcade games as an act of war.
“Pixels” could have been something special, but alas, director Chris Columbus (himself a faded star) seems content in just referencing classic video game characters instead of exploring why they would be doing what they’re doing as bad guys and what such a retro-gaming friendly alien invasion would mean. The movie treats Sandler and crew like the only people on the planet that understand Pac-Man, for crying out loud, as if iterations of the game haven’t been released on every single video game console for the last 30 years. Summer special effects movies can get away with being a lot of things: stupid, childish, shallow, and so on, but the cardinal sin is to be incredibly boring, and “Pixels” is just that. Download Pac-Man or Donkey Kong to your phone and play those for an hour and 45 minutes instead.