Wreck-it Ralph, and why I love smart kids' movies
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).
Plus there's a cool bear fight!