Wreck-It Ralph

Posted on November 1, 2012 at 6:00 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some rude humor and mild action/violence
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style action violence and peril, guns, explosions
Diversity Issues: Strong female and disabled character
Date Released to Theaters: November 2, 2012
Date Released to DVD: March 4, 2013
Amazon.com ASIN: B00A7OIXW6

No one wants to be the bad guy anymore.  In “Despicable Me,” Gru’s delightfully dastardly plans were no match for the overpowering adorableness of three little girls.  “Megamind” found that being the bad guy was no fun after he vanquished the hero.  Even the sharks in “Finding Nemo” became vegetarians, with support group meetings to chant, “Fish are friends, not food.”

And now there’s Ralph (John C. Reilly), having something of an existential crisis.  Back in the 80’s era of arcade video games, before people had home computers and game stations and televisions that were part computer and part game station to play on, if you wanted to play a game you had to go to an arcade and get a roll of quarters.  The primitive 8-bit games had a charm of their own, in part from the novelty of games on a screen instead of being based on mechanical balls and levers, and in part because their very simplicity left a lot of room for the player to fill in the details from his or her own imagination. The brilliant documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters explains that in some ways these older games still provide more of a challenge — they continue to fascinate competitive players.

This is a marvelous environment for a story, whether you grew up with these games and recognize the in-jokes or haven’t played a game since Pong and Tetris, even those who do not know a Wii from a Playstation.  Wreck-It Ralph is so persuasively authentic it seems to be entirely at home with what has been referred to as “the Roger Rabbit of video games.”  Ralph keeps knocking down the building inhabited by the Webelo-like residents of Niceville, and the relentlessly cheerful Fixit Felix, Jr. (“30 Rock’s” Jack McBrayer), with the help of the quarter-loading player, rebuilds so fast that Ralph gets thrown off the roof of the building and everyone in Niceville has a party.  Ralph doesn’t break things to be mean.  It’s just his job.  It’s in his code.  He feels that he is as much a part of the game as Frank and the building inhabitants.  Ralph shares his conflicts with an adorable villain support group (love the zombie with axes attached to his hands).  But he wants more.

Ralph is just lonely.  He wants to go to the party.  He wants to make friends.  He wants people to like him.  But just as he is coded to break things, the Niceville residents are coded to be scared of him.  Just to get rid of him, one of them tells him that if he can win a hero’s medal, he can be their friend.  So Ralph leaves his game to find a place where he can be a hero.

Ralph visits an intense and violent military game called Hero’s Duty with a tough female commanding officer named Calhoun (Jane Lynch).  She is “programmed with the most tragic backstory ever” and probably inspired by video game voice star Jennifer Hale, the combination Meryl Streep and Angelina Jolie of the video game world.  Everything seems to go according to plan until he somehow ends up in Sugar Rush, a game for children that looks like NASCAR if it was designed by Katy Perry.  Adorable little children race cars made out of candy and cookies.

Maybe not so adorable.  Just as Ralph is not so bad, the cute little kids of Sugar Rush are not so sweet.  He is annoyed by Vanellope (Sara Silverman), a bratty little girl, but then joins forces with her to help her build a race car.  And then he meets the “heroes” of Sugar Rush and finds that the line between good guy and bad guy is not what he thought it was.

The witty and vibrant worlds are gorgeously imagined (and of course now available in game form themselves), with a satisfying balance of heart and humor.  The story nimbly mixes existential questions of identity, purpose, and destiny with a sweet friendship and knowing humor about the world of games and gamers and even some Joseph Schumpeter-style creative destruction.  I loved the Mentos jokes and the detour to the car-building site.  And I loved the constant playing with almost Pirandello-esque notions of the way we create our worlds and the assumptions that underly them.

Parents should know that this movie includes video game violence with guns and explosions, some mildly disturbing images, characters in peril, and some potty humor.

Family discussion:  How do you know what is “in your code” and what you can change?  Can a bad guy become a hero?  What did Ralph learn from Vanellope?  Why did Vanellope love her car?

If you like this, try: Two more movies with bad guy-good guys, “Despicable Me” and “Megamind,” as well as “King of Kong,” the brilliant documentary about a video game competition.

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3D Action/Adventure Animation Comedy DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week For the Whole Family

Supreme Court: Violent Video Games Get Free Speech Protection

Posted on June 27, 2011 at 12:10 pm

A California law that would prevent the sale of violent video games to children has been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.  The 2005 California law has never been enforced because it was found unconstitutional in the lower court as well.  The 7-2 ruling (Breyer and Thomas dissenting) said, “The State wishes to create a wholly new category of content-based regulation that is permissible only for speech directed at children.  That is unprecedented and mistaken. This country has no tradition of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence.”

Supporters of the legislation tried to make the case that exposure to violence is a public health issue, like smoking and alcohol.  Opponents argued that games are protected speech, like a book or a movie.  While the industry may choose to adopt its own rules voluntarily (as the movie industry has with its ratings and the theaters have done with their ticket sales policies), the government may not impose these restrictions.

Parents will have to continue to be especially vigilant about the restrictions on video games in their own homes and, the bigger challenge, in the homes of the friends where children go to play.  Start with the ESRB ratings and then check out the ratings from Common Sense Media.

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Mickey Makeover

Posted on November 6, 2009 at 3:59 pm

mickey-mouse-10.jpg

Mickey Mouse is my favorite animated character. Part of the reason is historic — he starred in the first movie to feature a synchronized soundtrack, “Steamboat Willie.” And he was the first character and later the emblem for what would become Walt Disney Studios. Walt Disney lost the rights to his successful Oswald Rabbit character and decided to start his own studio with a new idea. As Disney said,

We thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin — a little fellow trying to do the best he could. When people laugh at Mickey Mouse, it’s because he’s so human; and that is the secret of his popularity. I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing — that it was all started by a mouse.

My favorite Mickey appearance is in “Fantasia,” where he plays the sorcerer’s apprentice who gets into trouble when he tries to perform a little magic.

But Mickey has not been much more than a logo for quite a while. What I like best about him, his perpetually cheery outlook, is a challenge for film-makers. It is easier for them to write stories for characters who are frustrated (Donald Duck), clumsy (Goofy), or mischievous (Chip and Dale). As he gets ready to turn 81 on November 18, Mickey is getting more attention — and a bit of a personality change. The New York Times reports that Mickey will star in a new video game and is getting a new look to go with a more aggressive persona. The game is “Epic Mickey, in which the formerly squeaky clean character can be cantankerous and cunning, as well as heroic, as he traverses a forbidding wasteland” battling none other than Oswald Rabbit. Players will be able to decide whether their Mickey character will be helpful or “selfish and destructive.”

mickey video game.jpg

I understand that Disney wants to make Mickey Mouse relevant to a new generation. But I hope Disney remembers what makes Mickey so appealing. And I hope Disney pays attention to the lessons of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” about how much trouble you can get into messing with magic.

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Internet, Gaming, Podcasts, and Apps Understanding Media and Pop Culture
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