"Pixels" is thoroughly entwined in retro video-game culture and the days way back when hanging out at the arcade was one of the coolest things a kid could do. It stands to reason, then, that the film is an affectionate throwback to 1980s fantasy-comedy cinema and an undoubted nostalgia trip for present-day adults who grew up during the generation of Atari and Nintendo. As jovially directed by Chris Columbus (2009's "I Love You, Beth Cooper
") and written by Tim Herlihy (2013's "Grown Ups 2
") and Timothy Dowling (2011's "Just Go with It
"), "Pixels" is unapologetically ridiculous and most definitely slight, but neither of these traits takes away how fun it is. Younger viewers who wouldn't know Pac-Man or Centipede even if they snuck up and gobbled them whole may not understand most of the references, but they will quickly be caught up in the pure adventure of it all, as well.
In 1982, Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler) narrowly lost the Worldwide Video Arcade Championship against trash-talking whiz Eddie "The Fireblaster" Plant (Peter Dinklage). Thirty-three years later, he is an electronics installer who has seen his marriage crumble and career fail to take offespecially next to his childhood best friend, the earnest but only vaguely literate President of the United States Will Cooper (Kevin James). No sooner has Sam shared a chance moment of connection with one of his customers, newly single motherand, it turns out, Lieutenant ColonelViolet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), when Will calls him to the White House to assist with a potential crisis: the attack of an Air Force base in Guam perpetrated by what looks like extraterrestrials from video game "Galaga." As onslaughts from the sky continue to pop up across the globe, it is determined that aliens have confused the video-game signals they have received as declarations of war, and have begun using pixelated characters from said games as retaliation. With the U.S. Navy not having the special hand-eye experience need to defeat this unusual brand of enemies, Will calls on gaming experts Sam, the gung-ho Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), and imprisoned former adversary/arcade championship winner Eddie to save the day from the iconic title figures of "Pac-Man," "Frogger" and "Donkey Kong."
Based on the 2010 short film by Patrick Jean, "Pixels" is not quite as indelible as the films that inspired itamong them, 1984's "Ghostbusters," 1985's "The Goonies," and 1989's "The Wizard"but it falls safely into the category of being a zippy tonal cousin. Many of the characters are thinly shaded and broadly imagined, but the writing is smarter and more slyly humored than one might be expecting. The incorporation of '80s-era video games into the story isn't as intensively explored as one wishes, with only a handful of them figuring substantively into the narrative. Of them, there is a terrifically executed set-piece as Sam, Ludlow, Eddie and "Pac-Man" creator Toru Iwatani (Denis Akiyama) go up against a trio of dastardly Pac-Men invading NYC. Later, a climactic confrontation aboard the alien mothership accurately emulates what it might be like for a person to physically enter the world of "Donkey Kong." The creepy notion of Ludlow beginning a relationship with Nintendo character Lovely Lisa (Ashley Benson), who may or may not be Q*bert in disguise (it's a long story), is decidedly less amusing.
The actors give themselves over to their roles with impressive aplomb, believing in the work they're doing no matter how silly they may have felt while shooting it. Josh Gad redeems himself after 2015's insufferably mean-spirited "The Wedding Ringer
" with his turn as the lovable, outgoing, heart-on-his-sleeve Ludlow (as a bonus, he also gets to perform Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" onstage), while Peter Dinklage (2014's "X-Men: Days of Future Past
") is comically dexterous as the self-involved Eddie, agreeing to save the world with the promise that he might be able to romance Serena Williams and Martha Stewart in return. Michelle Monaghan (2014's "The Best of Me
") is a standout as military scientist Violet Van Patten, prone to drinking away her sorrows in her walk-in closet one minute and kicking major butt the next. Monaghan's flirtatious relationship with Adam Sandler's (2015's "The Cobbler
") Sam Brenner is a highlight as they fall for each other while trading a steady stream of quick-witted barbs. Sandler is winning and relatively restrained here; this is far from a stretch for him, but he plays these kinds of sincere, wisecracking romantic leads well. More unlikely is Kevin James' (2015's "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2
") non-POTUS-like Will Cooper and Jane Krakowski's (2009's "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant
") First Lady Jane. To cast someone as naturally funny as Krakowski as the wife of the U.S. President and then not give her anything to do is this movie's most criminal offense.
"Let the nerds take over!" President Cooper proclaims when it becomes apparent that the only way to stop the aliens is to seek out the lifelong gamers most adept at defeating them. This rallying cry is demonstrative of the spirit of "Pixels," a movie that embraces the outsiders and casts them as world-saving heroes, if just for one day. The high-concept premise is just that, making little logical sense yet never pretending to be a beacon of authenticity. It is pure absurdity through and through, but within the craziness is an anchoring heart that sees the redemptive capabilities of bad guys and a chance for happiness between two peopleSam and Violetgetting a second shot at love. Director Chris Columbus is a filmmaker who knows a thing or two about making great '80s comedies (see 1987's "Adventures in Babysitting"), and he was a wise choice to helm this particular project. If "Pixels" doesn't consistently hit its mark and is on a lesser plane than a lot of the well-loved movies it aspires to be like, it is hard to deny the good time it nevertheless conjures.