Wreck-It Ralph – A Review

I have always had an affinity for video games. When I was a kid, my brother and I would battle it out on our Atari 2600. The games were simple and the graphics were terrible, but there was something mesmerizing about those early video games. We could sit there and play for hours and it was one of the few shared interests that we had because of our large gap in age (6 years – a lifetime as a kid). I then graduated to Nintendo, though my family never bought the console so I was relegated to playing at other people’s houses. I may or may not have sent some children that I babysat to bed early so I could get a little extra time in with Super Mario and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

By college and early graduate school the Playstation and Playstation 2 had debuted and I was once again hooked. I didn’t own either console, but the couple (and good friends) who lived in the apartment above me did and pretty much gave me free range to come up and play whenever I wanted. They were feeding the addiction. When they went to the hospital to give birth to their first child, they asked me to look in on their cat and said I could hang out and play games. Societal norms and old fashioned politeness had always dictated that I never overstay my welcome when I played Playstation when they were home, but now that they were temporarily gone, I was free to fully indulge my impulses. 9 hours later, my housemate came upstairs and dragged home so I could go to bed. I had asked him to do this when I went up there and he dutifully did, despite my objections and pleas for “15 more minutes.”

This is all to say that other than children, I’m probably the target audience for Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s latest animated feature that appears to be their answer to the success of Pixar. I was completely charmed by this film and was all-in within the first five minutes. Wreck-It Ralph is incredibly entertaining for both adults and children and doesn’t require a background in gaming to be enjoyed. But if you grew up with video games like I did, you will be especially enthusiastic about this movie.

Wreck-It Ralph can pretty simply be described as the video games version of Toy Story. The characters in the various video games in the arcade come to life; the video game is their job, but when the arcade shuts down for the night they are free to socialize and travel in between games. Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the villain of his game – he destroys and apartment building that hero Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer) repairs – but he has tired of the ostracism and loneliness that comes from that role. Ralph wants to be the hero for once and sets off to other video games to try and win a medal and prove his worth, while inadvertently unleashing a virus that could destroy the entire arcade. Along the way he teams up with fellow misfit Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) and is pursued by Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun (Jane Lynch).

Comparing Wreck-It Ralph to Toy Story is in no way to detract from the creativity and execution of the former. Wreck-It Ralph can stand on its own merits. I thought the story was innovative and engaging. There are lots of shout outs to video game tropes (Ralph is clearly a stand in for Donkey Kong, Vanellope’s game Sugar Rush is a derivative of Mario Kart, etc.), but the story does not rely on the viewer picking up on all these references for the movie to work. The film manages to create an entire world within the arcade and create original and developed characters during the course of the story. There is plenty of humor in the movie, for adults and children alike. Wreck-It Ralph is just a straight up fun movie. It is also pretty spectacular to look at.

The actors selected to voice each of the main characters were perfectly cast. Reilly is great at showing that while Ralph is the villain, he’s not a bad guy and just wants to be accepted. McBrayer is perfect as the simple Felix – the artists did a fantastic job of creating a character that bears a striking resemblance to the actor voicing him. I thought that Silverman was the real standout with Vanellope; though better known as a raunchy comedienne, Silverman’s performance fits in perfectly with this family friendly fare and gives the character that added spunk that makes Vanellope the real stand out character of the film, regardless of what the title of the movie is. I was less impressed with Lynch, who has been typecast with her Sue Sylvester role from Glee. Her character in Wreck-It Ralph is more of the same; her performance fits the character, but I do wish she would be allowed to do more in her roles than repeatedly playing the same one note.

Some other thoughts:

  • There is a delightful short that proceeds Wreck-It Ralph, where after a chance encounter with a woman at a subway stop, a man tries to find her again in the city. The short is done without dialogue and is beautifully drawn. I’m not sure how much it would appeal to children, however. The screening I went to was relatively empty and I couldn’t tell if the few kid in attendance were into it or not. But I really enjoyed it and wouldn’t be surprised if it is considered for Best Animated Short at the Oscars. It was very sweet.
  • While the comparison with Toy Story can mostly be drawn from both films giving life to inanimate objects from childhood, there is a scene where Ralph goes to a support group for villains that did conjure up memories of the Toy Story short Small Fry that preceded The Muppets:

I loved Small Fry for many reasons, but specifically for introduction of the character T-Bone, which happens to be my nickname (he makes his appearance around the 2 minute mark). If anyone at Pixar is reading this – PLEASE make a T-Bone action figure. It would have a place of honor on my desk!

  • While I’m sure Disney couldn’t get the licensing for many classic video game characters, there are a few familiar faces that do turn up throughout the movie.
  • Some of the minor characters’ voices may also ring a bell – Alan Tudyk (Firefly), Dennis Haysbert (24, All-State commericals, and my personal favorite, Major League), Adam Carolla and Mindy Kaling all have supporting roles.
  • I didn’t see Wreck-It Ralph in 3-D, so I can’t speak to the graphics. But even in 2-D it was amazing. Very colorful and dazzling. The animation also changes to match the inner world of each video game, giving them their own unique feel.
  • It’s been a while since I’ve used my Wii for anything other than streaming movies or working out, but after watching Wreck-It Ralph I was tempted to dust off my games and start playing again.
  • The saddest part of this movie is I wonder if kids today even know what an arcade is. Do they even exist anymore? I still dream of becoming rich enough that I can have a room full of classic arcade games.

I adored Wreck-It Ralph so much that I’ll pay it one of the highest compliments I can – I would pay to go see it again in the theater. I NEVER go to see films multiple times, so that is a testament to how much I loved it. I will absolutely buy this when it comes out on DVD and I’m not one that normally goes in for kid’s movies. The film does a wonderful job of mashing up nostalgia and newness, so I think it will appeal across generations. It’s funny, clever and sweet; it made for a very enjoyable movie going experience and I was honestly sad when the film was over. If you have kids or love video games, you should definitely check it out.

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Life of Pi – A Review

Back when I was in graduate school, a bunch of the other female students in my department decided we wanted to start a book club. We all enjoyed reading, but were finding it hard to justify the time to read for leisure when there was always another book, article or court case to be read. (Side note – A professor once overheard me mention a television program in casual conversation with a friend and asked me how I possibly had the time for such frivolousness. No time for TV? It’s amazing I lasted as long as I did in grad school. And P.S. – mind your business, Prof.) We figured if we made the commitment to the book club, we wouldn’t feel so guilty about carving out a little time to read one “fun” book a month. We also thought it would be nice to have some girl time – there weren’t a ton of women in the department and I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that often times we felt marginalized. The book club would allow us to engage in one of favorite hobbies, while also giving us a forum to talk about things we probably wouldn’t bring up around our male colleagues.

We did pretty well for a while and dutifully read our books and attempted to discuss themes and other issues related to what we had read. But gradually, these gatherings – like most book clubs – became more about socializing and less about discussing the books. People stopped being as faithful to reading the selected publications and we spent more time eating snacks and having a cocktail than anything else. As people moved away or left school, the club slowly began to fall apart. By the time we made what would be our final book selection, I was the only person who had read the book.

That last selection was Life of Pi by Yann Mertel and while I was fine with the book club disbanding – it had served its purpose – I was bummed out that I didn’t have anyone to discuss the book with. I really enjoyed reading it and more than any other book that we had previously read; it loaned itself to actual discussion and interpretation. What did everyone actually think happened? Sometimes you just want to talk something out to see how other people felt about it and Life of Pi was one of these instances. I felt the same way after I saw Vanilla Sky by myself; I wound up eavesdropping on other people as I was leaving the theater to get a different perspective. Over the years, while I’ve found some other people who read Life of Pi, the majority of them didn’t like it and really had no interest in talking further about it. So while I liked the book, I felt like a major component of the experience had been denied to me.

Despite my enthusiasm for the book, I was a bit skeptical when I heard that it was being adapted for the screen. In many ways, Life of Pi seems like an un-adaptable project; I had no idea how they were going to translate so many of the fantastical elements of the book to a movie. It just didn’t seem possible. Even the early previews for the film didn’t do much to draw me in. But I like the work of director Ang Lee (I may be the only person who didn’t hate his 2003 Hulk) and the film was getting some early Oscar buzz, so I dutifully went to the theater to see it opening weekend.

While it wasn’t my favorite movie that I saw over the Thanksgiving holiday, Life of Pi definitely exceeded my expectations. Lee and company created a visually stunning film that also managed to stay relatively close to the story of the book and overcome some – but not all – of the difficulties in bringing this story to life. Life of Pi is a story of survival and spirituality and may be the best use of 3-D that I’ve seen in a film since Avatar.

The film tells the tale of Pi, a young man growing up in his family’s zoo in India. As a boy, Pi collects religions the way that some young boys collect baseball cards and has to be reminded by his father that the animals in the zoo are not his friends. When Pi is a teenager, the family falls on hard times and it is decided to close the zoo and move to Canada. They board a Japanese tanker ship – along with numerous animals to be sold – and begin their journey to a new life. A storm capsizes the boat and Pi finds himself in a rescue boat with an unlikely companion – his family’s Bengal tiger. Pi must fight the elements and the tiger’s true nature to survive.

Life of Pi is an absolutely gorgeous movie. The colors are vibrant and the cinematography is sweeping. It is a testament to the advances in technology that tiger that viewers see in the majority of scenes is completely computer generated. Logically, I knew this – even the best trained animal would be unable to perform what is required – but visually, they had me fooled. The film is full of lush colors and exists somewhere in between real and imagined. Things don’t always look real, but they don’t look exactly artificial either; Life of Pi hovers in the middle, in more of a hazy dreamlike state. This is probably a film worth splurging on 3-D to see and that’s coming from someone who isn’t a big fan of the technique.

The narrative, unfortunately, never quite lives up to the visual spectacle; this is not to say, however, that the story is not enjoyable or is problematic. Newcomer Suraj Sharma does a fine job of showing the range of emotion that Pi must endure in his struggle. Not much is altered in the plot during the transition from the page to the screen, but some of its spirit seems to be. The film is limited in how deeply they can go; a book can delve much more into the thoughts of a character can than a movie, especially a movie when the character is lacking for people to interact with. A book makes it much easier to get into a character’s skin than most movies, just by the differences in the mediums. It is a beautiful film dealing with some big themes, but it ultimately feels a little shallow. My memories of the book may have clouded my overall impression of the film; I’ll be curious to hear what people who haven’t read the book think. I also thought that occasionally the film moved a bit slowly.

What I can’t emphasize enough is that this is not a film for small children; this is not Dr. Doolittle. The presence of animals does not indicate that Life of Pi is appropriate for all audiences. While there are moments of wonder, there are also moments of (implied) violence. The animals featured in the film behave like animals; it’s nothing worse than you would see on Animal Planet, but it could be upsetting for some children. The young boy sitting in front of me was so upset by the film that he and his mother had to leave the theater (which I was totally OK with because that kid also wouldn’t shut up). I don’t think they knew what to expect. If you have an extreme sensitivity to animals occasionally in pain or peril, this might not be the movie for you. It’s sporadic and not gratuitous, but the animal kingdom can be a brutal place.

Some other quick thoughts:

  • While the CGI is overall spectacular, the scene with the whale didn’t quite meet the level of reality that the rest of the movie obtains.
  • The focus on the movie is naturally on Pi after he is stranded, but I really enjoyed the early portion of the film about his childhood and where his unusual name came from.
  • Though I really have no interest in going there to visit, I do find depictions of India fascinating.
  • Meerkats make everything better.
  • The day after Thanksgiving is a crazy day to go to the cinema – lots of extended families who have exhausted things to talk about. You could almost feel the sigh of relief when the movie started and people had a 2 hour reprieve from their relatives.

I thought Life of Pi is a good, but not great movie. Its strength lies more with its visual components than in its narrative, though it is telling an interesting and unique story. The film does a much better job of bringing the book to like than I ever would have expected, but I still thought that some of the magic was missing. I don’t know that this would make my best picture nominee short list, but I understand why it is in the conversation. I may have exhausted my wonder with the book; knowing too much about the story does seem to take a bit away from the film. But perhaps once more people see the movie I’ll finally be able to have the discussion about how people interpret it that I’ve been waiting to have since 2004.

Pop Culture Roundup – Post Thanksgiving Edition

Hopefully by now all the effects of the massive amounts of turkey everyone consumed over the holiday weekend have worn off. It’s funny – I only had two days off from work for Thanksgiving, yet it felt like a lifetime. It feels weird to be back to work and be putting in a full week.

While I readjust to life in the office, check out the usual roundup of some pop culture nuggets from the last two weeks.

  • RIP Larry Hagman. J.R. Ewing goes down in the record books as a great TV villain. Hagman was one of the best things about the Dallas reboot on TNT. A handful of episodes for the second season have already been filmed, but his death will be addressed on the show.
  • The only thing surprising about this is the timing, since I’m guessing the show won’t be back after this season – Chevy Chase has quit Community.
  • Monday night I let my nerd flag fly as I went to a lecture by famed documentarian Ken Burns. He was being recognized by the NYS Achieves and it is no exaggeration to say that I was definitively the youngest person in the room. Between this and Lincoln, I’m spending a lot of time with octogenarians recently. I am a big fan of Ken Burn’s Baseball anthology, so I was interested to hear what he had to say. He was great and even gave the audience a sneak peek at his 2014 documentary The Roosevelts.  He’s also working on a documentary on the history of country music.
  • I don’t know what is in the water over at Two and a Half Men, but it apparently makes their cast act erratic. Angus T. Jones (the half man from the title) made a video in which he refers to the show he stars on is “filth” and has encouraged people to stop watching it. (Side note – Angus T. Jones sounds more like the name of an Old West Sherriff than a child actor). Yesterday he issued a statement apologizing for the remarks. Jon Cryer – your move.
  • Since it looks like I’m not going to make it to the 12-12-12 Sandy relief concert at MSG, I’m glad I can still see it on cable.
  • Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino are reuniting for Martic Scorsese’s new film, I Heard You Paint Houses. The title isn’t promising, so hopefully this isn’t another Righteous Kill.
  • Neil Patrick Harris’ new webseries, Neil’s Puppet Dreams, has debuted:

 

  • FX has ordered more episodes of Brand X (Russell Brand’s show) and Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell. Not a Brand fan, but I have been meaning to check out Totally Biased. Glad I’ll have the chance.
  • A 90s TV reunion that apparently isn’t happening? Kenan and Kel.
  • I love this headline from Gawker comparing Halle Berry’s life to an episode of Maury. Not a big fan of her, but I do feel for her daughter.
  • If NBC’s Hannibal fails, it won’t be from lack of star power. And yes, Hannibal refers to Hannibal Lecter of Silence of the Lambs fame.
  • A Hip-Hop Tribute to The Goonies? Kind of terrible and kind of awesome all at the same time.

 

  • If you’ve got some spare change lying around, the piano from Casablanca is up for auction at Sotheby’s next month. (Better use of your money – sending it to you favorite pop culture blogger).
  • Though the Candy Corn Oreos eluded me, I finally found Ben and Jerry’s Cannoli flavored ice cream. It was OK – I’d be hard pressed to think any ice cream is bad – but probably wasn’t worth the months of searching.
  • Portlandia will air a special winter episode on December 14th on IFC and season 3 will premiere on January 4th. An impressive list of guest stars is lined up for the new season.
  • Alicia Keys stopped by Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to sing a very special song:

PS. Did everyone else know that Alicia Keys was on The Cosby Show? She is the second little girl in this clip:

 

  • Those scamps over at The Onion tricked a Chinese newspaper into believing they had really named dictator Kin Jong Un the “sexiest man alive.”
  • This Guy Fieri sketch for SNL was done in dress rehearsal, but never made it to air:
  • NPR did a story on Chuck Lorre, producer of The Big Bang Theory, Mike & Molly and Two and a Half Men. I only consider one of those shows watchable, but you can’t argue that all three are successful.
  • It’s the beginning of the end – the cast of Breaking Bad is receiving scripts for the first episode of the final season. I will probably cry when this show ends – it is one of my all time favorites.
  • Anna Nicole Smith’s 6-year-old daughter will model for Guess, following in her mother’s footsteps.
  • CeeLo teamed up with the Muppets for a music video:

 

  • HBO’s Beyoncé documentary will premiere February 16th. You think that woman isn’t powerful? Microsoft Word just autocorrected the spelling of her name to include the acute accent mark.
  • My freshman year of college I would hang out with some of the guys in our dorm lounge to watch CHiPs re-runs in between classes, so this Star Wars/ CHiPs mashup made me smile:
  • As an avid fan of all things The Wire, I couldn’t pass up this interview with Dominic West (McNulty).
  • Killer Karaoke and Wives with Knives? Real shows.
  • Want proof of the power of a laugh track? Watch Game of Thrones reimagined as a sitcom:

 

  • And finally, The Shining: The Musical:

Much more creative than Oklahoma and Grease, both of which my high school did.

Happy Wednesday!!