I'm way late to this party (the casting choices were announced in December), but the pictures of the main characters just came out and they are so wrong that I had to add my two cents to the ongoing fan protest.
I had an interesting conversation a month or two back with a friend who thought that there was nothing wrong with using white actors for all the main characters. The way she saw it, they probably just picked the best actors for the roles, and who cares what the race of those actors is? Aren't the protesting fans the ones bringing race into it? Isn't it more racist to say that the actors shouldn't be white? (And besides, the cartoon characters didn't exactly correspond to real-world races, so...)
There was a time when I would have agreed with her, but now I realize there are a couple major things wrong with that logic.
One is assuming that the actors were chosen on merit, without reference to their race. As it turns out, that's giving Hollywood (specifically Paramount Pictures) way too much credit. I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, but then I read this blog post (thanks to Chris for the link). (More here.)
So, first the casting call explicitly expressed a preference for Caucasians for the four main roles. True, they did say "Caucasian (or any other ethnicity)", but the fact that they expressed such a preference proves that the producers made a conscious decision to "whitewash" the characters.
Then, in the casting call for extras, they said quote "We want you to dress in traditional cultural ethnic attire. If you're Korean, wear a kimono.".
"If you're Korean, wear a kimono". Do I have to explain how wrong that is? (Ironically this is for the movie adaptation of a cartoon that got traditional Korean hanboks exactly right, in a random Earth Kingdom episode.) Paramount's casting director was saying loud and clear that they want white main characters, and they want asians only in background, non-speaking roles, reduced to their "traditional cultural ethnic attire".
Paramount, you suck.
The other important thing to understand, in order to contextualize the Avatar casting thing, is that the pattern matters. In a perfect world, maybe actors would be chosen strictly on acting skills, and we wouldn't care whether they matched the race of their characters.
But if you look at Hollywood movies, that's not the case. There is a depressing trend: White people are heroes, villians, and the whole range of roles in-between. Asians (including Asian Americans) are kung-fu masters who teach their skills to the white hero, or they are evil overlords/minions, exotic sexually available women, or nerds who are good at math. And very little else. Name me one American-made movie with an asian/asian-american main character not played by Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee. (Or, OK, Jet Li. That's three, and they're all famous for their martial arts.)
Let me tell you a little story. One of my Aikido friends in Chicago is a Japanese-american and an aspiring actor. He tries out for lots of roles, has done some stage work, etc. He almost got a minor part in The Dark Knight (would have been "asian lawyer #2" in one courtroom scene) but sadly the scene, and the part, got cut. The finished movie? It had, I think, one asian person in a speaking part and his one defining character trait was that he's "good at calculating". (Aarghh! Again with this stupid stereotype.)
Among the things that made the Avatar cartoon so special were its unusually respectful and well-researched depiction of Asian cultures, and its diverse cast of main characters. When I say diverse, I want to emphasize that in Avatar it was never a matter of including token minorities, or satisfying political correctness — it was part of portraying a complex and realistic world, where the relationships between the different races and cultures were always a major part of the story.
It was a cartoon that respected kids' intelligence. It offered kids a group of heroes comprising two brown-skinned, pseudo-Inuit siblings one pseudo-Tibetan boy, and it respected kids enough not to assume that the audience needed a white main character to identify with. Making a movie out of this cartoon would have been a great opportunity to buck the trend and give some young aspiring asian-american actors a chance to play heroes.
(Note that after coming under criticism, Paramount recast Zuko as an Indian-american dude. So, they lightened all three of the heroes and darkened the villian? I'm, um, not sure that's an improvement.)
I wish Hollywood respected its audience as much as the creators of the Avatar cartoon did, but it's obvious that they do not.
I just saw Ponyo with Sushu. It was good! It's very cute and sweet. It's obviously a lil' kid's movie, like Totoro, but that's quite alright with me.
The story is kind of like a much, much trippier retelling of The Little Mermaid, set in and around a rural Japanese seaport town. I was wigging out on the natsukashii factor, because the backgrounds looked sooo familiar. The crooked mountain roads, the tunnels, the fishing boats, the grungy seaport machinery... It was practically "Kamaishi: the Movie". But a Kamaishi where prehistoric fish from the Devonian period swim through the treetops and where a freaky wizard with too much eyeliner commands living waves like giant blue amoebas.
And the colors, oh man, the colors! They're gorgeous. The backgrounds are all soft, inviting colored-pencil drawings full of verdant green, shimmering aquamarine, deep indigo, shocking crimson, and radiant gold. The animators were having way too much fun. Watch the way they animate liquid surface tension: it's completely wrong, but it looks awesome.
This is my favorite kind of anime: the kind with bizzare and intensely dreamlike goings-on are anchored in reality by the mundane details of everyday life in small-town Japan. It's something Miyazaki does very, very well.
Friday night at my board game party, the topic of the Dragonlance animated movie came up, because somebody there didn't know it existed. He needed to be told of the horror. Me and Sushu actually own a copy of this train wreck on DVD. The conversation reminded me that I never got around to blogging my Dragonlance rant, so here goes...
This movie is a really, really special kind of bad. I think the scene with the monks sums it up best. (This is the only version of the video I could find, so just ignore the Portugese subtitles on top of Hebrew subtitles and the Michael Jackson in the corner. Even though they're the only good things about this clip.)
No, this is not a dream, or an Internet parody. They really made a whole movie like this. The dialogue is terrible, the voice acting is worse (surprising as there are some supposedly decent actors slumming in it). 2d and 3d animation are melded together in the most awkward way imaginable, highlighting the weaknesses of both. Even if you sit through the whole thing, you never get used to the animation. Every scene finds new ways to drag the art of animation down to depths that would embarrass a Saturday-morning cartoon.
(My favorite part about the monk scene is that none of the Draconians in the movie ever show any signs of being able to speak English at all, except in this one scene and only when hidden in monk robes.)
Um, no. The movie sucks by being too slavishly faithful to the book. There are way too many characters squeezed in and no time in the movie for most of them to get any character development, or in fact to do anything except stand around in the back of the party like cardboard cutouts and occasionally make a one-liner to express their one-dimensional personality. But OH NO, they HAVE TO BE THERE because they're in the book and some internet nerd might complain if the all-important Tasselhoff Burrfoot, say, were taken out to tighten up the screenplay! The movie doesn't even try to be accessible to anyone not already well-versed in stupid D&D lore; when watching it with Sushu we had many "You would know this if you had read Lord of the God Kings!" moments, with me in the role of Gabe. Why the hell is valuable space in my brain being taken up knowing about Kender, Gully Dwarves, and why Raistlin's pupils are hourglass-shaped? Gah!!
I'm going to commit gamerdork heresy and state that blame for the stupidity of the plot and characters belongs to hack novelists Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, and not the film animators. Unlike most long-time D&D geeks, I never thought the Dragonlance books were all that great. Even when I was a dumb kid reading the original trilogy during lunch breaks in high school, I had a lot of issues with it. The plot is nothing but a bunch of magical McGuffins, and the characters are whiny and have no personality beyond their Fantasy Ethnic Stereotypes. The third book in particular was a wall-banger. (Dear lord look at the fanboys orgasming all over that Amazon review thread). Major events happen off-screen, NPCs do the important jobs while PCs watch, subplots appear out of nowhere, and critical conflicts hinge on arbitrary magical objects that were never mentioned before. (That dude with the jewel in his chest? WTF?) And the dwarf unceremoniously dies for no apparent reason. Like, literally, he's just walking along when he has a heart attack and dies.
It's not just that you're reading somebody else's D&D campaign. It's that you're reading about a campaign you wouldn't want to play in.
And remember, this is what 12-year-old Jono thought of these books. 12-year-old Jono thought the fucking Sword of Shannara series was good. What would I think of Dragonlance if I read it now, now that I have developed taste, now that we have books like Game of Thrones around showing that fantasy doesn't have to suck? The fact that the Dragonlance novels were New York Times Bestsellers proves only that people in the 80s were desperate to read any crap as long as it had dragons and wizards on the cover.
James Maliszewski at the old-school D&D blog Grognardia argues that Dragonlance was a huge influence, for the worse, on the development of both fantasy fiction and role-playing games in the 80s and 90s:
whereas Shanarra and Dragonlance are both quite obviously Tolkien knock-offs in broad outline -- being epic fantasies whose settings are pastiches of Middle Earth -- Dragonlance, by being associated with D&D, is the one that probably formed the imaginations of more future fantasy writers. This next generation of writers would, instead of imitating Tolkien, imitate Weis and Hickman, thereby starting the process by which D&D -- and fantasy RPGs in general -- would be snakes swallowing their own tails creatively.
I never played any of the Dragonlance adventure modules for 1st and 2nd edition AD&D. Even though I read the novels at the same time as I was getting into D&D I had no desire to do so, which should tell you something. But from what I hear about them, they were the first major published adventures based on prescripted plot. Previously, adventures were maps of locations where you could go adventuring at your own pace; post-Dragonlance, they shifted to being Epic Storylines that player characters would be thrown into. They had pregen characters (i.e. you WOULD be playing the characters from the book) and those characters had to act a certain way to move the plot forward. Certain events were required to happen or you wouldn't be able to play the next adventure in the series. In other words, they were the first published adventures to require heavy railroading on the part of the DM to function.
This approach was already well-established by 1994, when I got into D&D. Every sample adventure I read was full of "When the PCs do this..." and didn't say what the GM was supposed to do if the PCs didn't do that. Game texts at the time didn't explain any other way to play, because at the time they mostly didn't explain how to play at all, except to warn us that Dungeon Crawling Was Immature And Bad And You Should Aim To Have A Story Instead. The old-school D&D tools for fun nonlinear adventuring had been lost or hidden by the post-Dragonlance gamerculture bias for Story Good Dungeon Bad. It took me a while to realize that the pre-scripted approach to story creation Just Doesn't Work, and is guaranteed to make gaming miserable every time you try it. But when we tried to play without a scripted storyline, the result was usually a bunch of random fights and wandering around, and no story at all.
I didn't figure out how to make role-playing reliably fun until 200-fucking-7. And now I know that Dragonlance gets some of the blame for that.
So! In conclusion: Dragonlance! Terrible movie, terrible books, AND it helped ruin both role-playing games and fantasy fiction. What's not to love?
So recently I ran across this image on the internet (source here):
The top is the original Simpsons opening animation. The bottom is from 20 years later when they redid it in HD. Some people disagree with my opinion but I can't believe how much better the original one is! While somewhat crude, the animation has so much more life and personality to it; somebody had fun making Marge's hair whip around and making her emote her relief. The redone version makes Marge look creepily robotic, and it was changed just to add in a Unibrow Baby reference -- which isn't even a joke, it's just a callback to a joke that was only slightly funny the first time, before they ran it into the ground.
I hadn't thought about The Simpsons for years, but this made me all nostalgic for it. New Simpsons episodes used to be the high point of my week, back in high school. I found out Sushu has seasons 4 and 8 on DVD so I've been rewatching them. The Season 4 episodes are amazing and have me cracking up from beginning to end despite the fact that I can quote pretty much every joke from memory. The season 8 episodes are meh (I watched the Mr. Sparkle one tonight. It isn't anywhere near as good as I remembered it being).
I think it jumped the shark with "Who shot Mr. Burns?" which started a trend of really gimmicky plots that edged out the satirical, character-centric stories of the earlier years. (The Simpsons is now in season 22, which means by my count it's been going on more than twice as long after jumping the shark as before!)
Anyway, what I mainly want to talk about is not how much new Simpsons sucks, but rather the impact that the Simpsons had on comedy. When it was brand new it was the funniest thing I had ever seen, because it pioneered a certain style of humor that I had never encountered before. If it doesn't seem so innovative now, it's because every American comedy post-Simpsons couldn't help being influenced by it. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say of people in my age bracket that the Simpsons literally re-programmed our sense of humor. It even re-programmed our use of the English language.
But what was that style of comedy, exactly? Can we identify it and analyze what made it funny?
It's easy to forget now, but the Simpsons of the first few seasons was almost unbelievably bleak. The humor was driven by a level of cynicism bordering on existential despair. The Simpsons were a bunch of losers living in a crapsack world and watching lots of TV to distract themselves from their meaningless lives. The stories involved characters confronting death, having serious crises of faith, making painful choices, trying to do the right thing and getting punished for it by an uncaring world, and at the end when they barely scraped by it counted as a happy ending.
Remember that one where Homer ate the improperly prepared fugu and faced the fact that he likely had only one day left to live? He doesn't even make it to most of the things on his sad little list. He tries to listen to the Bible on tape to comfort him in his last moments but all he gets is a list of "X begat Y, who begat Z..." Religion is powerless even to provide solace in the face of death. When Homer survives, he promises to live each day to its fullest -- but he's soon back on the couch eating pork rinds and watching TV.
See? Bleak as hell! And still hilarious.
The joke about the Bible's contents shows a willingness to make anything a target of satire. There are not a lot of shows today, and there were even fewer in 1991, willing to make such a direct attack on something so sacred, but organized religion is no safer from Simpsons mockery than are public education, local government, or the news media; all of which are, in Springfield, transparently corrupt and self-serving.
The bit where Homer promises to live each day to its fullest and then immediately goes back to watching TV is a great example of the "instant hypocrisy" joke, a mainstay of Simpsons humor -- a character makes a weighty ethical statement; their actions contradict it less than five seconds of screen time later. There are jokes like this in almost every episode. Since The Simpsons, the "instant hypocrisy" joke has popped up almost everywhere; it's just a standard part of humor now, but it's hard to think of examples from before The Simpsons popularized it. More generally, The Simpsons frequently showed its own protagonists as hypocrites, as having their priorities all wrong, and as lacking the basic qualities of a decent human being. (In early Simpsons, before he became a one-note religious fundamentalist, scenes with Ned Flanders were there to show how an ideal non-dysfunctional family treated each other, in stark contrast to the Simpson family.) Comedies have always made their protragonists the butts of jokes, but seldom with the vicious pessimism towards its own characters that the Simpsons regularly showed.
The end of that episode also shows TV as an evil influence - another statement the Simpsons made as frequently as possible. Before The Simpsons, you pretty much never saw a TV family watching a TV of their own; it would have been considered too self-referential. Earlier shows didn't even acknowledge the existence of TV within their fictional universes, let alone show characters talking back to the TV, let alone showing the TV as something that ruined their imagination, just like it's ruined their ability to... uh... oh never mind. I think The Simpsons pioneered the show-within-a-show (Krusty, Itchy&Scratchy, Kent Brockman, many more) as a way of satirizing the media. And every time the Simpsons attacks TV, they're indirectly reaching out through the fourth wall and mocking their own creators and their own audience. Sometimes they're quite blatant about this ("Wow, Fox turned into a hard-core pornography station so slowly I didn't even notice"). This was rare before the Simpsons, to say the least.
(Aside: It's really weird to go back to early Simpsons and see Homer and Marge expressing attraction to each other and having other such traits of a real married couple. Before their personalities got flattened to "idiot" and "nag". It's even weirder to see Lisa joining in mischief along with Bart; she was always the conscience but she wasn't always a one-dimensional spoilsport about it.)
The Simpsons of seasons 4 through 7 was a lot less bleak, but even funnier. They picked wider-ranging targets for satire, they had smart, funny dialogue, and they had an amazing sort of rapid-fire joke density. Watch an episode from this classic period and notice how every line is either a joke or a setup for a joke; there's no dialogue wasted on boring exposition, but the story gets told all the same.
As an example, I present one of my all-time favorite jokes. From the 4th-season monorail episode:
Marge (shocked): "Homer! There's a family of possums living inside the control panel!"
Homer (cheerful): "I call the big one Bitey."
The first line is relevant to the plot because the episode is about the town being ripped off by an unscrupulous pusher of shoddy monoral construction. It hits one of the major themes running through the Simpsons, which is that everybody with any kind of power is corrupt, everything you get is always a crappy and broken version of what you hoped it would be, everything you touch is falling apart, Springfield's schools are inferior to Shelbyville's schools, and life generally sucks. Humor comes from exaggerating this to absurd levels: not just frayed wires or jammed gears, but an infestation of marsupials. Also, possums are funny because it's very specific while being unexpected. Saying a family of "animals" or "rats" would not have been nearly as funny as possums.
Of course that's just a setup for Homer's line, which tells you so much in so few words: He's already encountered the possums. Not only that, one of them bit him. (Implying that something horribly painful has happened offscreen is always funnier than showing it directly, because it forces your brain to fill in the blanks.) Despite getting bitten, he doesn't even recognize it as a problem. (Characters with misplaced priorities: another endless source of humor.) In fact he reacted by essentially adopting them, and naming them the way a 6-year-old would. ("Homer is stupid" jokes work best when he's a very certain kind of stupid - a certain childlike innocence, well-meaning but clueless.) Homer's reaction to the possums is the classic way of coping in the crapsack world of the Simpsons - life gives you absurd situations, you come up with absurd systems in order to deal with it. Life gives you a monorail full of possums, you treat them as pets. These coping mechanisms are another bountiful wellspring of humor.
In just six words, "I call the big one Bitey" squeezes in three different jokes while summing up an entire philosophy of life. That's some efficient writing right there!
Another good example of joke density - from the visit to Duff Gardens:
Bart: "Look, it's the Duff Beer-a-mid!"
Lisa (reading from pamphlet): "It contains so much aluminum that it would take five men to lift it... 22 immigrant laborers died during its construction."
Selma: "Lots more where that came from."
The aluminum thing is funny because it's a parody of the style of those information pamphlets you would get at a tourist attraction; in this case the fact is completely unimpressive but it's still delivered with total seriousness. It also sets up the next line, about the 22 immigrant laborers, also parodying historical factoids, but funny because it's so implausible that 22 people could die while stacking beer cans. (It's also another "Bitey" joke - imply something horrible happened and make the viewer's brain fill in the details). That line sets up the last joke, which is about Selma's incredibly callous disregard for human life. (Again with the showing the main characters as terrible people.)
To recap, we've identified some recurring joke types:
Instant hypocrisy - where somebody states what's right and is proven a hypocrite in their very next breath
Jokes about how bad TV is for you, and jokes at the expense of the TV-viewing audience
Jokes in which authority figures and public organizations are shown as absurdly corrupt
The offhand statement that implies horrible painful things happened offscreen that we'll never know about ("That's where i met the leprechaun. He tells me to burn things.")
Jokes about how little the Simpsons care about things they're supposed to care about - each other, human dignity, their supposed religion, etc - compared to how much they care about food, TV, beer, etc.
Jokes about the exaggerated horribleness and decrepitude of pretty much everything in Springfield
Attempts to cope with horrible situations via weak-ass excuses ("The grocery store sells sugar for 45 cents a pound, and that doesn't have nails and broken glass in it." "Those are prizes!")
Homer the well-meaning but clueless and incompetent man-child
The extremely specific and unexpected thing; the non-sequitur: "Release the robotic richard simmons."
Here are a bunch more that I don't have lengthy examples for:
The one where we laugh at a character for laughing at something that we think isn't funny; the joke is that they have a horrible sense of humor. (A lot of Itchy & Scratchy is this kind of joke.)
The depressing, apathetic, or amoral statement delivered like a heartwarming moral: "If something's hard, it's not worth doing. Now let's put your karate uniform in the closet along with your shortwave radio, your boy scout uniform, and your unicycle, and go inside to watch TV."
The one where we cut to some unrelated character across town - or jump through time - for the punch line. (Marge at the town meeting: "It looks like the whole town showed up for this!". Cut back to the neighborhood street, where burgulars are breaking into every house: "Suckers!")
The made-up words / intentionally incorrect grammar joke: "Me fail English? That's unpossible!"
Speaking in sentence fragments to indicate going crazy: "Can't sleep. Clowns will eat me." "Urge to kill rising"
When someone words something in an unexpectedly precise, literal, even pedantic way in the middle of otherwise normal conversation: "I find your ideas intriguing and wish to subscribe to your newsletter". "Money can be exchanged for goods and services."
The sudden incongrous switch between epic/serious and mundane/comic and back again: "You must find the jade monkey before the next full moon." "We found the jade monkey sir. It was in your glove compartment."
Jokes where somebody confidently says something completely wrong ("Vampires are make believe, just like elves, goblins, and Eskimos")
Watched the "Oscar nominated animated shorts collection" with Sushu last night at an artsy-fartsy theater in Palo Alto.
Madagascar: A Travel Diary. French. Just what it says - animated version of somebody's trip to Madagascar. Changes rapidly between animation styles and techniques from shot to shot. Very pretty, nice music, relaxing atmosphere, not much of a story.
Let's Pollute. American. Shrill, obnoxious, preachy, heavy-handed environmental oversimplification. Sarcastic preachiness is still preachiness. Ugh. The only one I wouldn't watch again.
The Gruffalo. British/German. A children's book, animated, with rhyming narration and all that. Lovely rendered forest backgrounds, with lots of incidental creatures in motion. The light is really well done. Nice acoustic guitar music. At over 20 minutes, goes on about twice as long as it needs to to tell the story, though.
The Lost Thing. Australian. My favorite of the bunch, this was just really really cool. A simple story but with a unique aesthetic - rust, giant inexplicable machines, biomechanical lifeforms... a little Kafka and a little HR Geiger filtered through Myst and interpreted by Dr. Seuss.
Day and Night. Pixar. The one that was bundled with Toy Story 3. I find it kind of whatever; just a vehicle for visual tricks and sound-effect gags, really. Also: amorphous blobby cloud-men wolf-whistling at human women is gross and creepy.
Urs. German. VERY VERY GERMAN. Brutally, depressingly German. A gorgeous oil-painterly animation style. A harsh, bittersweet ending mixing hope and despair. It made me think "THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU LOSE AT AGRICOLA". Serious and thought-provoking: Sushu and me spent the ride home talking about what it all meant.
The Cow who Wanted to be a Hamburger. American. Done in a rough, wiggly animation style that reminded me of old Klasky-Csupo stuff on Nickelodeon. Cute, fun, and darkly humorous, made me laugh out loud several times. Great use of musical notes on the soundtrack to substitute for speech.
Interesting that the last three were all completely wordless.
Urs, The Cow, and Lost Thing were all fantastic; three out of seven ain't bad. I recommend going to see this collection if it plays in your town.
Yo, it's happening. First two episodes are online already. I just watched them and they look promising! Great animation, cool music, pretty backgrounds, solid characterization, funny jokes, sweet martial arts, inventive setting, hints of major plotlines to come: what's not to like?
Kind of unusual for a kid's show to be like "Hey kids! 70 years have passed, most of the characters you like have died of old age, sorry." That's how the Avatar Cycle works, though. They're being true to their mythology. I'm pretty excited that they allowed technology to progress enough in the intervening time that their fantasy setting has effectively been transformed into an early modern setting with some fantasy elements. I can't think of another series that's made that jump (except maybe Final Fantasy, but that has no continuity anyway). I'm looking forward to lots of stories about crime and political corruption and future shock. (Kid-friendly, of course.)
Just got back from 2 weeks in Illinois. Since I'm unemployed "in a pre-revenue startup", I can't afford to fly home for every holiday like I did in past years, so I went for a longer visit at Thanksgiving in exchange for not visiting at Halloween or Christmas. Mom is disappointed, of course, and so am I. The underlying unhappiness here is the unavoidable result of marrying someone from the other side of the country, so there may be no good answer, but I promised to do weekly video chat and to come visit again in June.
Fun stuff I did in Chicago:
Hiking in the autumn woods at the Morton Arboretum and at Starved Rock with Mom & Dad
Cooking with the family! After a trip to the Korean grocery store I made tom yum, green Thai curry, miso soup, and braised daikon/lotus root. Of course we made Thanksgiving dinner together too; they did a brined/smoked turkey on the grill, and I hand-braided a pumpkin pie crust
Meeting Cat, Kent, and Jonathan in Hyde Park for board games
Learning to play "Always" (the song from Robot Unicorn Attack) as a guitar-accordion duet with Stephen, and meeting his gonzo Homestuck-fan roommates
Hanging out with Atul again at our old favorite tea-house, talking Mozilla Foundation and having great Russian food with him his dad
Passing the Wiimote back&forth with Aleksa to beat Zelda: Twilight Princess together. (After a year of Minecraft being our main game, it feels weird to play a game that's always telling us where to go and what to do! What is this, a job?)
Helping Aleksa figure out how record screencasts and how to get started modding Minecraft, which might just be the thing that gets her into programming
I was afraid Wreck-It Ralph would be all pandering to the nostalgia of 30-year-old video game grognards (hello) but I was happily surprised.
The writers kept the cameos from famous games mostly in the background (Ralph's in a villain support group with Bowser, Dr. Robotnik, and M. Bison; they meet in the ghost rectangle in the middle of the Pac-Man board) and kept the focus where it belongs, on the original characters. The three games invented for the movie -- a racer, a first-person shooter, and an old-school single-screen action game -- are believable and fully realized in a way that tells me the writers know and love video games.
I'll nominate Ralph as the best movie about video-game characters yet made. Remember the flood of video-game movies in the 80s? Remember how much they sucked? I know this is geek heresy, but I thought even the original TRON was unbearably boring; the characters had no personality. Maybe a generation had to pass before the culture could absorb video games enough to make a good movie about them.
I think I realized something about myself. I've got a reputation as a guy who hates all movies, but that's not true. Turns out I just hate movies aimed at grown-ups. Most of my favorites - e.g. the works of Ghibli, Pixar, and Jim Henson - are movies aimed at kids.
Why is that? Because I'm an emotionally-stunted man-child who refuses to grow up? Probably. But also because I want two things out of a movie. One is meaning: themes, character development, a coherent philosophy. The other is fun stuff: cool visuals, dynamic scenes, originality, humor. If your movie has cool fight scenes but no themes or character development, if it's just about colorful dudes punching each other (ahem, Avengers), it makes me bored. If it's got Big Themes but it's dour and dreary, all talking heads and long meaningful pauses and rain, that makes me bored too. Most grown-up movies fall hard on one side or the other.
And OK most kids' movies are dreck (previews for some truly atrocious ones were attached to Wreck-it Ralph) but smart kids' movies are one of the few genres that allow themselves to be fun and meaningful at the same time. Kids lack experience, but they're not dumb. Smart kids' movies, by treating kids with respect, tell stories that are relevant for everyone. I dare say that some kids' movies get at things about the human condition that "grownup" movies are afraid to tackle. Contrast, say, the opening sequence of "Up" (still chokes me up just thinking about it) vs. the wanky wish-fulfillment of "Avatar". One of these is telling us the truth about life and it isn't the one supposedly aimed at grown-ups.
Wreck-it Ralph is about self-discovery, finding your place in the world, the meaning of heroism, the emptiness of material rewards, seeing people as more than their job description, trying to break out of the box that other people use to define you... there's a lot of good stuff in there and it holds together really well on repeat watchings. Ralph isn't the only dynamic character; Vanelope is hilarious and has a decent character arc of her own, being almost a co-protagonist. The movie is a whole lot better on the female-representation front than most of its source material (unfortunately) is.
On the fun-stuff side, Wreck-it Ralph captured what I love about my favorite video games -- the worlds you can explore, the characters you can be, the friendships and rivalries with other players, the thrill of honest competition, the quest to get farther than you've ever gotten before, the innocent joy of an activity that has no purpose except to be fun. I would play the hell out of Fix-it Felix Jr. and Sugar Rush if they were real games. (Hero's Duty not so much - I hate rail-shooters.) The plot has some great twists, the environments are wondrous, and we get to laugh at characters from wildly different genres trying to interact despite their divergent expectations about game mechanics (and equally divergent bodily proportions).
There is also a pretty cool visual, during scenes where a certain character hacks the source code of his own game (!) which does a decent job of visualizing what programming feels like.
This was a good year for smart kids movies! Besides Ralph, I was surprised how good Paranorman was. It's a stop-motion animation by the makers of Coraline, about a boy who can see ghosts; sadly it seems like almost nobody saw it. I loved Paranorman's portrayal of a creaky New England town (much like the ones I grew up in) and all the little extra touches they put into the animation. I thought the gradual reveal of the central mystery was well done, and I approve of its message - don't want to give spoilers so I'll just say it's a story about how fear turns people into monsters.
Also saw Brave last week. It's not Pixar's best, but middle-of-the-road Pixar is still really good relative to most studios' output. It has amazingly gorgeous backgrounds, but at first I thought it was going to be boring because it seemed to be following the typical Disney Princess "no mom I don't wanna marry this bozo I'ma run away" narrative. But then it takes a different turn. No handsome prince character rides in to resolve everything; in fact all the male characters are background. Instead the story is all about repairing a broken mother-daughter relationship. It's weird how rare this is a subject for a fairy-tale movie. (How many Disney character moms are even alive and present, let alone get their own character development?) It made me think a lot about my relationship with my own mother (who has been going around saying "it's yerr FATE" in a fake Scottish accent ever since seeing the movie).