This weekend's big box office take for Disney's animated comedy Wreck-It Ralph is a clear indication that audiences ate up the video game-inspired feature, reviews comparing it to the heartfelt work from sister company Pixar. The existential journey of the titular character, the villain of a Donkey Kong-esque arcade game Fix-It Felix, balances its adventure with video game references and character cameos — the story is its own beast, but founded on decades of well-known games.
On the surface, the movie sports an immersive world. Behind the scenes, it was a legal triathalon.
"It took us a long time to get clearance for all the characters," Wreck-It Ralph producer Clark Spencer told Hollywood.com. Besides its original creations, Wreck-It Ralph collects characters from around the gaming globe, including Nintendo's Bowser, SEGA's Sonic the Hedgehog, and characters from Capcom's Street Fighter. Legal rights keep any creative property under lock and key from outsider use, making it difficult for a big studio like Disney to pull off a "mash-up" film. Thankfully, savvy producers have pulled it off in the past, and it helped leverage the ambitious prospect of Wreck-It Ralph for Spencer and director Rich Moore. "I think Roger Rabbit and Toy Story paved a great road for us. The companies realize there is something fun about having characters from different universes coming together and it can be beneficial to both sides, not just something for the Disney company."
Spencer and Moore's version of Wreck-It Ralph was the final incarnation of a movie that has been development at Disney since the '90s, where it originated as Joe Jump and evolved by the mid-2000s into Reboot Ralph. When Moore finally stepped in to the process, the movie began to take shape.
"Usually what happens is that you know the director from years of working at Disney, and you come together as a team," says Spencer. "Rich Moore was new to Disney, coming from The Simpsons. I knew that would be someone I would want to work with, because I wanted to know how their brains work."
Spencer saw a new creative energy in Moore and worked hard to ease him into the Disney way of life. "There's a lot of how the company works that, for someone who has never done it before, they [need] someone by their side who can explain, 'At this point in the process, this is the sort of thing that starts to happen.'" Directing a movie at the Mouse House is only one part of the job. According to Spencer, part of his job was helping Moore understand how is movie would function in other areas of the company, including consumer products, interactive gaming, and theme parks. "All of those pieces of the puzzle are things Rich has to be involved in, and I wanted to help him understand what of each of these aspects were, and at what point he should be pushing back if something wasn't fitting within how he imagined the film or the characters."
In 2010, it finally came time for Spencer and Moore to embark on their mission to assemble a cameo-filled ensemble for Wreck-It Ralph. To get the job done, the duo headed to E3, the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo where companies and industry players show off the latest and greatest in video games. Spencer and Moore hit up the convention to pitch the film to majors like Nintendo and SEGA. Luckily, the movie had been in development long enough that their song and dance was more than just a well-planned sales pitch.
"The movie was far enough along that not only could we pitch the story, but we could actually show storyboards with their characters as part of the film," says Spencer. "I think, visually, when you see something, you start to think, 'That's funny. That will be a great integration of our character into this movie.'"
Video game movies have a spotty record, thanks to the continued mistranslation of a game's essence to what could function on screen. (Nintendo still feels the burn from their 1993's Super Mario Bros., which is why we haven't seen any other big screen adaptations of their games.) Spencer was well aware of the Hollywood troubles that have plagued game companies. "We said, 'We will let you go on this journey with us. We promise we will always share script pages, we will show you the model as it's getting built. We will show you the test animation. And we will even let you approve the final animation in the show — something we've never done before."
The approach worked. Spencer and Moore got the characters they wanted, but the filmmakers worked hard to keep up their end of the bargain. "With Nintendo, we sent the Bowser scenes back and forth to say, 'Are we being true to your character?' says Spencer. "And they would give us notes, and we'd address those notes, and then we'd send it back to Nintendo and they'd give us [more] notes." Spencer notes that the Walt Disney Animation brand was a big sell for the gaming companies, an assurance that the final product would be top quality — but that doesn't mean the various companies didn't have a few notes along the way. "Ironically with Bowser, we maybe in the beginning we were being too fluid. That's not the way Boswer moves. They would talk about the mouth shapes. There was too much attention to detail in the mouth shapes. They would say, 'That's not how Boswer moves.' And that's a good note for them to be giving back to us, to stay true to the character."
Balancing the tone and references of Wreck-It Ralph for both adults and children was one of the team's biggest challenge. But as for nodding to retro games, there was never a worry on Spencer's part. "When the story was first set, they wanted the protagonist to be a character who had done the same job for 30 years … The world of video games just became this great universe to set it in. So if he's been doing the job for 30 years, you're going to start in the world of an 8-Bit game. Our thought was, if you do the story correctly, it doesn't matter if you understand the 8-bit games, because kids play video games. They'll understand the character." Thanks to the advent of mobile gaming, Spencer believes Ralph's retro style is easily digestible by audiences of all ages. "Pac-man, Q*Bert… kids are discovering them. Even if you've never played Donkey Kong, and the Fix-It Felix game certainly has similarities to it, you'll still understand the journey of the character in the film."
To best compliment the impressive mosaic of gaming characters, Spencer turned to a master of mash-ups "When it comes to Hero's Duty (the movie's fictional first-person shooter), we wanted it to feel modern. The natural inclination was to go to heavy metal, because that felt like what might exist. But Tom [MacDougall, music supervisor], to his credit, said we should go even more modern. Electronic dubstep — and Skrillex is the hottest out there." The breakout DJ may not be a likely collaborator for a Disney movie, but turns out, he's a big fan. "He loves the movie Tangled," says Spencer.
With an open mind and goal to make Wreck-It Ralph an all-encompassing video game movie, the sky was the limit for Spencer and Moore to include their favorite characters. And they did. "One was Pong. It was the first game I ever played. That was a big one. We went to Atari and I said, 'Please, please, please.' That was the seminal one for me. The other one was Dig-Dug. I was a huge fan. But Pong started my history in video games."
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures]
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While recent animated blockbusters have aimed to viewers of all ages starting with fantastical concepts and breathtaking visuals but tackling complex emotional issues along the way Ice Age: Continental Drift is crafted especially for the wee ones — and it works. Venturing back to prehistoric times once again the fourth Ice Age film paints broad strokes on the theme of familial relationships throwing in plenty of physical comedy along the way. The movie isn't that far off from one of the many Land Before Time direct-to-video sequels: not particularly innovative or necessary but harmless thrilling fun for anyone with a sense of humor. Unless they have a particular distaste for wooly mammoths the kids will love it.
Ice Age: Continental Drift continues to snowball its cartoon roster bringing back the original film's trio (Ray Romano as Manny the Mammoth Denis Leary as Diego the Sabertooth Tiger and John Leguizamo as Sid the Sloth) new faces acquired over the course of the franchise (Queen Latifah as Manny's wife Ellie) and a handful of new characters to spice things up everyone from Nicki Minaj as Manny's daughter Steffie to Wanda Sykes as Sid's wily grandma. The whole gang is living a pleasant existence as a herd with Manny's biggest problem being playing overbearing dad to the rebellious daughter. Teen mammoths they always want to go out and play by the waterfall! Whippersnappers.
The main thrust of the film comes when Scratch the Rat (whose silent comedy routines in the vein of Tex Avery/WB cartoons continue to be the series highlight) accidentally cracks the singular continent Pangea into the world we know today. Manny Diego and Sid find themselves stranded on an iceberg once again forced on a road trip journey of survival. The rest of the herd embarks to meet them giving Steffie time to realize the true meaning of friendship with help from her mole pal Louis (Josh Gad).
The ham-handed lessons may drag for those who've passed Kindergarten but Ice Age: Continental Drift is a lot of fun when the main gang crosses paths with a group of villainous pirates. (Back then monkeys rabbits and seals were hitting the high seas together pillaging via boat-shaped icebergs. Obviously.) Quickly Ice Age becomes an old school pirate adventure complete with maritime navigation buried treasure and sword fights. Gut (Peter Dinklage) an evil ape with a deadly... fingernail leads the evil-doers who pose an entertaining threat for the familiar bunch. Jennifer Lopez pops by as Gut's second-in-command Shira the White Tiger and the film's two cats have a chase scene that should rouse even the most apathetic adults. Hearing Dinklage (of Game of Thrones fame) belt out a pirate shanty may be worth the price of admission alone.
With solid action (that doesn't need the 3D addition) cartoony animation and gags out the wazoo Ice Age: Continental Drift is entertainment to enjoy with the whole family. Revelatory? Not quite. Until we get a feature length silent film of Scratch's acorn pursuit we may never see a "classic" Ice Age film but Continental Drift keeps it together long enough to tell a simple story with delightful flare that should hold attention spans of any length. Massive amounts of sugar not even required.
[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox]
At some point in the early years of the 21st century a bunch of Hollywood executives must have gotten together and decided that animated films should be made for all audiences. The goal was perhaps to make movies that are simultaneously accessible to the older and younger sets with colorful imagery that one expects from children’s films and two levels of humor: one that’s quite literal and harmless and another that’s somewhat subversive. The criteria has resulted in cross-generational hits like Wall-E and Madagascar and though it’s nice to be able to take my nephew to the movies and be as entertained by cartoon characters as he is I can’t help but wonder what happened to unabashedly innocent animated classics like A Goofy Movie and The Land Before Time?
Disney’s Winnie The Pooh is the answer to the Shrek’s and Hoodwinked!’s of the world: a short sweet simple and lighthearted tale of friendship that doesn’t need pop-culture references or snarky dialogue to put a smile on your face. Directors Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall found some fresh ways to deliver adorable animation while keeping the carefree spirit of A.A. Milne’s source material in tact. Their story isn’t the most original; the first part of the film finds Pooh Piglet Tigger and Owl searching for Eeyore’s tail (a common plot point in the books and past Pooh films) and hits all the predictable notes but the second half mixes things up a bit as the crew searches for a missing Christopher Robin whom they believe has been kidnapped by a forest creature known as the “Backson” (it’s really just the result of the illiterate Owl or is it?).
The beauty of hand-drawn animation all but forgotten until recently is what makes Winnie the Pooh so incredibly magnetic. There’s an inexplicable crispness to the colors and characters that CG just can’t duplicate. It’s a more personal practice for the filmmakers and should provide a refreshing experience for audiences who have become jaded with the pristine presentation of computerized imagery. The film is bookended by brief live-action shots from inside Robin’s room an interesting dynamic that plays up the simplicity of youth ties it to these beloved characters and brings you right back to memories of your own childhood.
With a just-over-an-hour run time Winnie the Pooh is short enough to hold the attention of children but won’t bore the parents who will love the film mainly for nostalgic musings. Still it’s the young’uns who will most enjoy this breezy bright and enchanting film that proves old-school characters can appeal to new moviegoers.
Animation particularly when it comes out of the Disney/Pixar stable is one of those areas of filmmaking that regularly inspires the phrase "They don't make them like they used to." In the case of Toy Story 3 however it's more accurate to say "They have never made them like this." It's certainly not unheard of for an animated film to be good for a Pixar film to be great or for the third film in a trilogy to be outstanding (though that's the rarest of the three) but in the case of Lee Unkrich's film the sheer degree at which it exceeds at all three is not just rare it's unprecedented.
Eleven years have elapsed since Woody (Tom Hanks) Buzz (Tim Allen) and all of Andy's favorite playthings had their last adventure -- rather 11 years have elapsed since Andy stopped playing with his toys. Buoyed by Woody's never-failing devotion the gang is all optimistic that Andy will elect to bring them with him to his first year of college but as that fateful empty-nest day approaches it becomes clearer and clearer that the only toy that will be making the trek to school is Woody. The rest are all by a series of unfortunate events consigned to live out their remaining days at Sunnyside daycare. Things are actually looking up for the neglected entertainers until they realize just how careless the ankle-biters are when it comes to playing with toys.
Unfortunately there is no escape in sight for the lovable personalities Pixar has been refining for over a decade. Lotso Huggin' Bear (Ned Beatty) runs a tight ship at Sunnyside; the new toys are just going to have to be sacrificed to the aggressive toddlers so the old veterans can have a relaxing time with their more mature counterparts. Eventually Woody catches wind of what kind of life his old pals are being forced to live and Toy Story 3 quite brilliantly becomes a riff on classic prison escape movies as Woody seeks to breach Lotso's security measures and bring his bunch back to Andy where they belong. And while this on-the-run chunk of the film is some of the most thrilling material Pixar has ever delivered it's also some of the most touching.
Unlike most sequels not a moment of Toy Story 3 feels artificial. There's no sense that Pixar decided to make a third film because it knew that the box office would gladly support another entry; no sense that this is a cash grab (unlike a certain green ogre's most recent trip to the big screen). All of those typical sequel pitfalls are carefully avoided by a swelling sense of finality. Toy Story 3 isn't just another adventure with these characters -- there is in fact no doubt that this is their final adventure their final hoorah together. Director Lee Unkrich and screenwriter Michael Arndt meticulously lead the audience along with bated breath the entire time culminating in a life-or-death scenario for the toys that is more heartfelt and genuine than most live-action films can ever muster.
It's astonishing how the creative team at Pixar can make you forget that what you're watching is all a bunch of digital wizardry. Maybe it's the 3D this time around maybe it's that this is the studio's most accomplished technical feat to date (there are single shots at a landfill that pack in richer detail than the entirety of the pioneering first film) that makes Toy Story 3 such an immersive experience. Or maybe it's simply because Pixar treats its property which is ostensibly for children with the utmost sincerity. The result is an overwhelming success the rare kind of film that were it a human being would be your best friend.
One could reasonably make the case that Toy Story 3 is the single best animated film ever made. I wouldn't outright agree with such grandiose claims but it's certainly not a baseless proposition that you'd be laughed at for bringing up. However with part three now tucked under Pixar's belt one could present an even better case that Toy Story is the best film trilogy ever made -- a claim I am far more comfortable signing on the dotted line for.