Movie buffs and industry pundits alike were probably gobsmacked by The Walt Disney Company’s announcement this Tuesday that it had acquired Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion in cash and stock. Time will tell whether a reportedly-in-the-works Star Wars sequel, scheduled for a 2015 release, will benefit or suffer from having Mickey Mouse as Darth Vader’s new boss, but for the moment I’m far more interested in the here and now.
It’s been a topsy-turvy animation year for the Mouse Factory. This past summer, it released Pixar’s Brave, that Emeryville, Calif. company’s first stab at a Disney princess. It goes without saying: Flame-haired Merida is no Cinderella (or Aurora, or Belle, or Jasmine, or Mulan, or Pocaheinie, or fellow redhead Ariel). Don’t even get me started on that idiotic plot twist. But this weekend marks the release of Wreck-It Ralph, the company’s in-house animated fall release, which examines the inner lives of arcade game characters. In other words, it’s the kind of subject matter you expect from the Pixar folks, at least when their movies used to be breezy fun. (Remember those days?) I braced for another misfire…and was pleasantly surprised with the results.
The title character, voiced by a spot-on John C. Reilly, is the oversize villain of a Donkey Kong knock-off called Fix-It Fred, a one-man demolition crew intent in destroying a red brick building and wreaking havoc on its Fisher-Price-figurine-shaped residents. Along comes Fred (30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer) with his magic wrench to fix every broken piece, save the day and garner a coveted medal. (Arcade fans will note how much easier this game is in comparison with its inspiration. Ever try playing Donkey Kong? It is so hard!) The problem with this tidy, cut-and-dry scenario is that once the arcades shuts down, Ralph, with his jutting chin and huge, cartoonishly grotesque arms, is still treated as a pariah by his work colleagues. His humble abode is a dumpster overlooking the building he pulverizes on a daily basis.
Why can’t he be the good guy for a change? Or so he laments at a meeting of a villain support group hosted by one of Pac-Man’s ghosts. (He’s one of many copyrighted gaming personalities that interact with the fictional characters in the clever screenplay by Jennifer Lee and Cedar Rapids scribe Phil Johnston.) And so, when he spots a medal in one of those violent, post-apocalyptic first-person fighting games (can you spell H-A-L-O?), Ralph goes AWOL in search of some overdue recognition. Fearing that Fix-It Ralph will be put out to pasture, which is the fate of malfunctioning arcade games, it’s up to Fred to bring in the wayward antagonist…or is it?
Director Rich Moore’s résumé includes Emmy-winning directing stints at The Simpsons and Futurama, and the TV veteran has a ball refashioning his pop-culture-reference heavy sensibility to the cozy confines of children’s feature animation. Granted, he does embrace the tried-and-true story turns we’ve come to expect from the Disney formula with a little too much enthusiasm. Once Ralph finds himself in the candy-coated realm of the kid-friendly racing game Sugar Rush and befriends Vanellope, a pint-size would-be racer, voiced with cheeky irreverence by Sarah Silverman, you can sense the plot wheels locking into place.
But what Wreck-It Ralph lacks in novelty, it more than compensates in easygoing charm. Whenever it’s not drenched in pathos, Pixar’s output in recent years worked overtime to capture that spark that endeared audiences to the first Toy Story. (Truth be told, I haven’t liked any of their features since Up.) Watching Wreck-It Ralph’s familiar hero’s journey unfold with clockwork precision, I asked myself when was the last time a Pixar movie had been this much fun, and I had to go all the way back to Monsters, Inc., a movie with which this new production shares a few too many similarities. Even though there’s an inevitable sense of déjà vu that comes with watching Ralph and Vanellope connect as fellow outcasts (Sully and Boo immediately come to mind), that doesn’t make their friendship any less touching. Add a delightful voice work by the entire cast, an intricate sound design that pays homage to the beeps and jingles that welcomed us when we walked into our mall arcade in the eighties, and what you’re left with is a disarmingly inventive hybrid that blends Pixar and traditional Disney sensibilities to trace a journey that begins in low self-esteem and arrives at a sweetly cathartic happy place. Moore’s not aiming to reinvent the wheel with Wreck-It Ralph, but he has restored a little of this reviewer’s faith in the future of Disney animation, as does Paperman, the enchanting (nearly) black and white short that precedes it in theaters.
Ralph and Vanellope aren’t the only kindred spirits discovering each other at the movies this weekend. In fact, the subject seems to be a running theme in some of the other new releases. Take, for instance, Café de Flore, the latest – and most personal – effort from French Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y., The Young Victoria). Beating the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer at their own metaphysical game, the gifted filmmaker gives us two seemingly unrelated stories. In the first, Antoine (newcomer Kevin Parent), a professional DJ in present-day Montreal, is enjoying the fruits of success: fashionable career, beautiful young wife, adorable kids from his first marriage. But what about Carole (Hélène Florent), aka Wife #1? They were joined at the hip in their teenage years, swore they’d be together forever. For Carole, who is still very much in love with Antoine, being apart is nothing less than unacceptable.
All of a sudden we find ourselves in Paris. The year is 1969, and Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) has given birth to Laurent, a healthy boy with Down syndrome. The boy’s dad walks out the door without looking back. Oh well, sighs Jacqueline, more time to devote to the #1 man in her life. Once in grade school, though, seven-year-old Laurent (Marin Gerrier) meets lovely new classmate Véro (Alice Dubois), a girl with his same condition, and they become inseparable, much to the chagrin of Véro’s wealthy parents. What is Jacqueline’s role in this insular world that these two children have created for themselves?
It’s a good thing that Café de Flore is so well acted and so expertly assembled. The film’s first hour, in particular, is a tour de force of astoundingly virtuosic editing, executed by Vallée himself. (So that’s what Cloud Atlas would have looked without the Wachowskis’ hamfisted worldview.) Even more praiseworthy is that the characters are never upstaged by Vallée’s stylistic flourishes. This is a rare romance where a show-offy mise en scène accentuates intimacy. But then Vallée sees fit to reveal what these two narrative threads have in common, and even though I was more than willing to go with this bold storytelling leap, the film becomes a much more mundane affair after it discloses its big secret. Once Vallée gets to that point, I immediately wished he had refrained from spelling everything out with such finality. Café de Flore is still the kind of conversation piece that commands your attention. Its imperfections are dwarfed by Vallée’s prowess. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
An outside-the-box exploration of unlikely bonds is also a fitting description of Safety Not Guaranteed. A well-deserved recipient of the screenwriting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this neglected gem opened and closed in theaters this summer with little fanfare. Catching up with it on DVD, I am now kicking myself repeatedly. The story was inspired by a classified ad in which a man: a) claims he can travel back in time, and b) wants a partner to go back with him. An intern for Seattle Magazine (Aubrey Plaza) joins two colleagues (Karan Soni and New Girl’s Jake Johnson) to seek out Kenneth, the weirdo behind the newspaper post, but she’s the one who winds up befriending the wary recluse who insists he’s being followed by men in suits. The film’s strongest asset, Derek Connolly’s witty, surprisingly tender screenplay, could have been ruined by aggressive whimsy if it had fallen in the wrong hands. Thankfully, director Colin Trevorrow plays the material straight, and his understatement pays dividends. It’s very rare when such a modest low-budget film leaves such a lasting impression. Safety Not Guaranteed is one of those diamonds in the rough.