I know, that headline is trouble. You're always treading dangerous ground when you insist on defining what makes a good this or the right kind of that, as if there is no room for change or improvement when it comes to classic properties. Of course there is — Jason Segel's 2011 Muppet film approached the concept from an entirely different direction. It didn't hit all of its marks, but it prevailed overall in its conceit: make a movie not about Muppets, but about Muppet fandom. But Muppets Most Wanted, in absence of a clear mission statement and fueled largely by the monetary glimmers of the sequel game (the film's opening number admits this outright), has fewer marks readily available to hit. Landing in the ambiguity between the classic Muppet adventure formula and Segel's post-modern Henson appreciation party, Most Wanted feels like a failure on both counts. It doesn't know which kind of movie it wants to, or should, be. So it doesn't really be anything.
On the one hand, there's the half-cocked "get-the-band-back-together" through line, mimicking but not quite accomplishing the spirit of the 2011 picture. None of the Muppets are particularly likable or charming in this turn, and even fewer of them actually given anything to do. Kermit loses his s**t in the first act after a spat with Piggy and a barrage of insubordination from his troupe (provoked by the nefarious Dominic Badguy, Ricky Gervais), storms off in a huff, and gets swept up in a case of mistaken identity when his criminal doppelganger Constantine pulls the old switcheroo, landing Kermit in a Russian gulag. You'd think this would be a good opportunity for the second tier of Muppet favorites — Piggy, Fozzy, Gonzo, Scooter, Rowlf, et al — to go on a search and rescue... but save for a very brief sequence at the tail end of this achingly long film, none of the other Muppets are giving anything to do. They just hem and haw and perform the occasional "Indoor Running of the Bulls" while Dominic and Constantine scheme, rob banks, and bicker.
Meanwhile, Kermit has some fun in prison — a far more endearing plot that sees him befriending the merry convicts, organizing a penitentiary revue, and even winning the heart of the vicious warden Nadia (Tina Fey). If only we could spend more time with real Kermit and less time with fake Kermit and his second banana Gervais, an effectively boring pair.
On the other hand, though, there's the Muppet shtick that fans of The Great Muppet Caper and Muppet Treasure Island — and yes, The Muppet Show itself — will deem the movie's best material: CIA Agent Sam Eagle and Interpol Agent Jean Pierre Napoleon (Ty Burrell) hot on the trail of Constantine and Dominic. Here, we get a different type of Muppet movie entirely from what Segel and the A-plot in Most Wanted are opting: the old fashioned vaudeville act, with Sam standing as an independent entity from his googly-eyed brethren, on a goofy, musical prowl with Burrell that fuels the film with its best and most consistent chuckles. Their "Interrogation Song" number is outstanding, exemplifying the many talents of Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie, who wrote all the music for this and the previous film.
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Unfortunately, Muppets Most Wanted isn't sure that it wants to be The Great Muppet Caper, beheld so stubbornly to its Segelian roots. There's a palpable compulsion to stick with this agonizingly self-aware, nostalgia-crazy, brimming-beacons-of-the-past-in-a-callous-today theme that doesn't work a fraction as well as it did in the 2011 film. Without a legitimate celebration of any of our favorite characters, how could it? With so much going on in this movie, and such a lengthy runtime at just under two hours, it's a sure sign of failure that we walk away feeling like we spent barely any time with the Muppets.
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Wreck-It Ralph lives in an arcade and while that may be a longstanding fantasy for many of the children of the 80s the shine has more than worn off for Ralph. He resides in a videogame called Fix-It Felix and has been executing the same program for thirty years. Pursuant to the game’s 8-bit edict he must endeavor to destroy an apartment building as a quirky little do-gooder with a hammer tries to repair it. Ralph is a badguy but is he a bad guy? Feeling out of order he flees the world he knows to see if he can take his unfulfilling existence to the next level.
At a cursory glance Wreck-It Ralph may seem to offer nothing to anyone bereft of a passion for classic gaming. Truth be told there are ample references to games and gaming characters and not without a deep and knowledgeable affection. The jokes don’t come from the mere appearance of these characters but also videogame fundamentals actually permeate into the traits of the film’s original characters. In fact possibly the most thoughtful nod to gaming is the jerky movements of the characters within the Fix-it Felix cabinet superbly calling back to the limited range of motion afforded to 80s-era arcade fodder. It’s a balance of overt reference and the methods by which various gaming trademarks play into Wreck-It Ralph’s overarching universe.
And that universe is precisely what will draw in even those who have never held a controller. The landscapes through which Ralph travels are varied and gorgeous: from his modest but charming 8-bit home to the dark and foreboding nightmare of Hero’s Duty and finally to the garish wonderment of Sugar Rush. There are so many styles and applications of animation at work each dedicated to the conceptual scenery changes. You don’t need to know how to play Tapper or even that it ever existed as a real game to recognize that his almost stop-motion movements clash delightfully with the CG Ralph. And no Halo or Mario Kart knowledge required to understand the depth of detail in the worlds of Hero’s Duty and Sugar Rush respectively.
But like any hardcore gamer will attest great games cannot live by rich environments alone. The best games like the best movies are founded upon remarkable characters. Ralph may be a arcade videogame villain but his appeal is as broad as his building-leveling shoulders. He represents that need in all of us to rise above our station to challenge the notion that we are predestined to one occupation or personality set. Ralph is a guy who’s bad because he’s programmed to be but he is constantly looking at the life he wants--the life of a hero--from the other side of the glass literally in fact. It’s a sweetly relatable theme that finds its way into other characters like Ralphs pint-sized nemesis Vanellope. It is from this theme that the movie derives the majority of its heart.
The voice cast here is exceptional but that should come as no surprise considering the characters seem modeled after the personalities of the performers selected or at least modeled after the characters they tend to portray. Ralph brought to life by John C. Reilly is a perennial sad sack with an awkward sense of humor that is somehow endearing. Voiced by Sarah Silverman Vanellope is a shrill snarky troublemaker who manages to be adorable despite herself. Felix is a dopey but sincere yokel…voiced by 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer. Jane Lynch voices the bossy domineering female soldier with the endless vocabulary of put-downs. Need we say more? That’s not to say this approach is lazy; far from it. It gives the characters a fleshed-out lived-in quality.
Wreck-It Ralph significantly narrows the gap between Disney and Pixar in terms of excellence. It still seems strange to think of Disney and Pixar as two separate bodies but the fact is that as soon as Pixar made the choice to stand alone their films have outshined Disney’s by a considerable margin. Wreck-It Ralph borrows liberally from the Pixar playbook evident right from the moment the central conceit is revealed to be the bestowing of sentience and personality to inanimate entities. And like Pixar Wreck-It Ralph is at its most enjoyable and most clever when the audience experiences the functional mechanics of how these characters exist in their own world the specificity of their imagined living space and its logistics. Yet this time Disney has dug deeper than the amiable outward trappings and arrived at what makes us love the films of Pixar and quality family entertainment in general.
If there is a complaint to be had with Wreck-It Ralph it is merely that it introduces a fascinating and thoroughly entertaining concept and then limits itself to but a few outlets for its expression. The movie spends so much time in Sugar Rush and while it’s beautiful and captivating we wonder what the other games would have had to offer. It’s akin to Monday morning filmmaking “I would’ve done this” or “I would’ve done that ” but it would have been the cherry on the sundae or perhaps more appropriately the various fruits in the maze to have been able to witness Ralph’s interaction with other games.
By the time we reach the kill screen Wreck-It Ralph has used something as geeky and esoteric as the world of arcade gaming to warp us to a place of emotional resonance and utter delight. Suffice to say it has plenty of replay value.