ByBenjamin Marlatt, writer at

In 1982, in an attempt to establish peaceful communication with extraterrestrial life, NASA launched a time capsule containing images and video footage of Earth’s life and culture into space. However, the aliens that received the capsule misinterpreted the video footage of classic video games as a declaration of war. In retaliation, the alien beings attack Earth using models of the games – Pac-Man, Centipede, Space Invaders, Tetris – as their weapons of choice.

Responding to the attacks, President Will Cooper (Kevin James) calls upon his best friend, former video game champ (Adam Sandler) and retrogamers Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad) and Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage), Brenner’s former gaming nemesis, to defeat the aliens using, of course, weaponry similar to the games.

Well, Happy Madison is back once again to hold moviegoers across the world hostage and there’s nothing we can do about it. Like Michael Bay and Nicholas Sparks films, Adam Sandler’s production company churns out film after film that puts my objectivity through the ringer. I honestly would love more than anything to get a good film from them; the 1 1/2 to 2 hours I spend watching them would too. Their record speaks for itself, though, and at this point, I go in hoping and praying it doesn’t suck. It doesn’t even have to be good, just don’t suck.

A good film from them is not entirely impossible. Bay has Pain & Gain and Nicholas Sparks has The Notebook. It may be a case of a blind squirrel finding that one, once in a lifetime, acorn, but I’ll take it.

Is Pixels that one good film? Unfortunately, no, but fortunately, this is nowhere as toxic a film as what Happy Madison is more than capable of poisoning us all with.

I think the mild difference makers here is, for starters, Happy Madison is dealing with an actual premise, one that has promise, albeit one that isn’t their own idea. Because of that, it distracts writers Timothy Dowling and longtime Happy Madison mainstay Tim Herlihy from cluttering up their screenplay with stupid fratboy humor, save a Q*bert peeing himself joke they can’t help but throw in (I guess it’s like the alcoholic that goes so long without a drink ’cause of AA, only to then fall back off the wagon).

It also, and this is key, helps that they drew in an experienced filmmaker as Chris Columbus to direct Pixels instead of one of their go-to guys like Frank Coraci, Steven Brill, Tom Brady (no, not that Tom Brady) or their greatest offender Dennis Dugan. Columbus’s career includes writing Gremlins and The Goonies and directing Adventures in Babysitting, the first two Home Alone films, Only the Lonely, Mrs. Doubtfire and the first two Harry Potter flicks. Knowing his proven experience with comedy, action, drama and effects-driven flicks, Pixels presents an opportunity that is right up his alley. However, this film is the equivalent of two oncoming freight trains, one the good (though not since the Harry Potter movies) that Columbus can bring, and the other the crap that Happy Madison can bring.

Of course, the result is an inevitable collision of mediocrity.

Not that Pixels isn’t without its moments. Despite an anti-climactic showdown with Donkey Kong, Columbus does put together a few fun action setpieces, most notably the battle against Pac-Man (who, despite what the poster shows you, is never even close to the Bay Area), and the effects are cheerfully cheesy, an expected technical choice given the vintage ’80s video games the story is based on. Also, the cast features some non-Happy Madison talent. Instead of the usually motley crew of Sandler’s charity cases (thankfully, Nick Swardson is reduced to just a two-line cameo), we get Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad and Michelle Monaghan who at least try to elevate the half-assed script.

And it’s that glaring weakness of Herlihy and Dowling’s that drags the film down. It’s not like I was looking for anything deep, and I definitely wasn’t expecting a level of cleverness like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World from the writer of Little Nicky and Grown Ups 2. Of course, I could go on about the number of questionable story threads such as Monaghan’s Violet dealing with her husband cheating on her with a young hottie named Sinnamon (It’s with an “S”… get it?!!!), Jane Krakowski playing the most superfluous First Lady in the history of the United States, and a certain character using cheat codes that doesn’t make any sense. And honestly, none of it would really matter if the movie was any better than it is. I’d be more than fine with a film – even an imperfect film – that’s nothing more than good old-fashioned escapist fun; in fact, Columbus excels at that style and does what he can here. However, despite the potential in the premise, Herlihy and Dowling, and in fairness to all, Columbus too, settle for something occasionally fun but overall lazy.

Pixels also continues Happy Madison’s ongoing problem with not deciding who their audience should be. For all the crap they put out at the beginning of their run, at the very least, they knew what their audience was then, the college-aged fratboy demographic. Nowadays, they don’t know whether they’re making films for the fratboy crowd still or families. The humor here is too dopey for the adults (not to mention an awkward “Kennedy shot first” JFK assassination joke that couldn’t be any more out of place in a film like this), and while I’m sure the kids will get a kick out of the juvenile antics, the plethora of ’80s references will fly high and away over their heads. Even the adults will fail to find humor in the references since there’s nothing particularly clever about them, and are just insert a shot of so-and-so (Hall and Oates, Madonna, President Reagan, etc.) and call it good.

Pixels has an inviting premise and it’s obvious that it wants to be something along the lines of a video games version of Ghostbusters. That 1984 classic, however, benefited from a hall of fame worthy trifecta of Ivan Reitman’s smart direction, Harold Ramis/Dan Aykroyd’s witty writing and a pitch-perfect cast led by Bill Murray. Pixels has a proven director in Chris Columbus who provides some fun to the proceedings, but it all ultimately gets bogged down in references its assumed target audience won’t get and the usual lazy shenanigans that is the Happy Madison formula.


I give Pixels a C- (★★).

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