It’s not without its problems, of course. The movie has a horrible diversity issue and gives an incredible lack of screentime/character development to its only two female characters, Michelle Monaghan and Jane Krakowski, the latter of the two barely squeaking out two lines of dialogue in the entire film’s runtime. And the film does slightly fall apart as it comes into the third act, feeling like it’s rushing along just so it can reach the end credits in ninety minutes. What should be a grand and epic war on earth between our gamer heroes and their pixilated foe is rather trite and a touch dull. Even the climactic battle against Donkey Kong, though visually impressive, barely musters any excitement. But while the diversity and final acts are problematic, the relationship angle between Sandler and Monaghan is both unnecessary and mis-handled. They’re given no reason to fall in love, other than being in the same proximity to each other, and it serves as another example of Sandler being cast against a pretty lady for him to make out with. There’s also that very questionable sub-plot involving Josh Gad being in love with the fictional video game heroine Lady Lisa, a sub-plot that is not only a little uncomfortable and more than a little creepy, but also makes no sense when she becomes a fully-formed human woman compared to the rest of her cohorts, who are all made of the titular pixels.
And yet, Pixels somehow overcomes a lot of these problems (though maybe not the Lady Lisa plot). The two big sequences prior to third act – a London-based battle with Centipede and a New York street race against Pac-Man – are really fun and genuinely exciting to watch. Sandler, Gad and Dinklage are all entertaining in these scenes, and they both offer up exactly what the short film promised. On top of that, there are some humours moments peppered throughout the film that just about eases it over the Mark Kermode ‘six laugh test’ (a comedy should make you laugh at least six times in order to qualify as a comedy) and the plot is engaging enough that you’re invested in the character’s plights – even if you’re not that engaged with the characters themselves. The idea of these unlikely heroes battling an alien horde of 8-bit sprites holds a lot of potential, and much of that potential is on screen. It even opens itself up to a franchise world or even a cartoon spin-off, in the same way that Ghostbusters and fellow Ivan Reitman movie Evolution did.
Is the film brilliant? No. But is it worthy of so much derision and hatred? Absolutely not. So why did people hate it?
One suggestion that comes to mind is that many cinema-goers felt it was ripping off the Futurama episode “Raiders of the Lost Arcade”, in which Fry joins the Milatari to defend the world from a swarm of video game aliens after Ambassador Kong of planet Nintenduu 64 declares war. While not an exact rip-off, many felt that there was enough similarities between Pixels and the 2002 episode to declare the movie devoid of any creativity.
But the more simple answer that comes to mind is Sandler himself. Over the past decade or so he has become somewhat of a running joke amongst critics, whether its mocking him for cinematic tranwrecks like Jack & Jill and That’s My Boy or pointing out his ego-stroking outings like Blended, Grown Ups and its pointless and baffling sequel Grown Ups 2. So bizarre and useless a movie is Grown Ups 2, that many believe that the whole film was made solely to be a tax write-off. Sandler has been struggling to get good reviews since Big Daddy and The Wedding Singer, and his first Netflix movie, The Ridiculous Six, has already been branded a failure before its even launched. So was the Pixels backlash already pre-determined because the movie starred Adam Sandler? If it was – which is actually quite likely – the idea of Paul Blart Mall Cop playing The President of the United States did nothing to help its cause.
Whatever the case, Pixels didn’t find its intended audience and critics found a lot of glee in seeing the film perform terribly at the box office. But it really didn’t deserve the hate that it got. It’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, and it would struggle to break through the ‘3-star’ barrier, but there is a lot to like in the movie. Columbus’ visuals are fantastic and the film features some awesome special effects, and most of its jokes – when they play up to its arcade themes at least – hit a homerun. Sandler sleepwalks through his performance, but Gad and Dinklage are really trying to amp up the aura on screen. Dinklage in particular is very funny and his charisma really battles through any script deficiencies. There is a much better movie to be found in Pixels, but something just didn’t quite add up. Was it the budget cuts? Was the script no good to begin with? Who knows.
So, no, Pixels really wasn’t that bad. And who better to argue that than the man who brought us to this dance in the first place.
“I think the movie is not perfect, but I like it,” Patrick Jean told Business Insider. “I feel the second half of the movie could have been better. But I know they had budget issues, they had to cut some stuff. It’s a light action comedy movie, and that’s what we wanted to do in the first place”
Luke Owen is the Deputy Editor of Flickering Myth and a contributor on The Flickering Myth Movie Show. You can follow him on Twitter @ThisisLukeOwen.