Thought Bubble: Adam Sandler Isn’t the Bad Guy

In the upcoming Pixels, Adam Sandler stars as a once-great arcade player called upon to defeat an invading alien force of classic video game characters. The first trailer dropped earlier this week, prompting reactions that range from ‘This is a day of mourning’ to ‘I guess it isn’t as bad as I thought would be.’

Me? I’m indifferent. I feel like I’m supposed to have an opinion about the movie, which is based on the short of the same name and was shot primarily in my backyard in Toronto. Pixels plays fast and loose with classic iconography, which is either supposed to send me into reflexive spasms of ecstasy or draw the full venom of my ire. But it is yet to engender a strong reaction.

To me, Pixels looks like just another movie. I like Peter Dinklage and I love whatever it is he’s doing here – nobody phones in a performance while simultaneously not phoning in a performance quite as well as he does, especially when it seems like he’s having fun (see: Knights of Badassdom) – but Pixels is sadly not a Peter Dinklage vehicle. The trailer features far more Adam Sandler and Kevin James, and the style of humor seems to be more in keeping with their recent output.

Sandler’s involvement, in particular, seems to have created a rift in the movie’s potential audience. For many, the true stars of Pixels are the arcade icons like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, characters that have traditionally been viewed as niche outsiders that appeal to a select group with fond memories of the originals. The real selling point is therefore that famous sprites will share the screen in a big budget Hollywood picture in a manner not unlike The Avengers, with the fun twist that Pac-Man and Co. are villains rather than heroes.

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Sandler, meanwhile, presents the opposite media profile. He’s the kind of star who’s supposed to be safe enough to appeal to everyone, which often means he appeals to no one. Though once box office dynamite, he’s spent the past few years picking up Razzies while his clout has diminished accordingly. At this point he’s a punchline, a comedian best known for making movies that aren’t funny that do just well enough to keep Rob Schneider in business.

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That bothers some people, especially as it relates to Pixels. According to the backlash, someone with Sandler’s reputation does not deserve the honor of appearing alongside gaming’s founding fore-sprites. The implication is that Sandler’s involvement somehow tarnishes the great legacy of Donkey Kong, and that we should all be furious that after years of holding out, Nintendo went back to Hollywood only let Happy Gilmore put his grubby hands all over Mario’s ape.

I can understand that perspective. The things we love have a powerful purchase on our memory and we get defensive when we feel those things are being mistreated. We always want the best for the ones we care about when we feel like they belong to us.

The truth, however, is that fans can’t claim ownership of anything depicted in the trailer, and it’s probably unhealthy to try. That’s why I don’t have a problem with Pixels. Though I appreciate nostalgia as much as anyone, the notion that classic arcade games are sacred doesn’t gel with any version of reality. Pac-Man, Centipede, and Space Invaders were always disposable corporate entertainment designed to suck the coins out of kids’ pockets while mom and dad weren’t paying attention.

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In other words, servicing fan nostalgia is not Pac-Man’s primary function. He exists to make money for his license holders, so it seems foolish to expect anything different. It’s actually rather fitting that Adam Sandler was handed the keys to Pixels, an instance of Hollywood’s most blatantly corporate star headlining a blatantly corporate nostalgia cash-in.

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As with Transformers, there’s more money to be made casting a wide net for casual viewers, even if it means alienating a few of the more fervent fans. You definitely don’t have to like that, but it seems pointless to get angry when that’s how the machine has always worked. Pixels can’t ruin my childhood because I won’t give it that kind of power.

I ultimately don’t care whether or not Pixels is good, nor am I particularly excited for the movie. I just don’t think it has some kind of divine obligation to be better. Video games are now a permanent fixture of the media landscape, which means that they’re as ripe for commercialization as any other beloved toy property.

If anything, a movie like Pixels is probably a safe bet because gaming culture is no longer niche in any meaningful way. It’s mainstream, which means that it can weather imperfect movies and crass commercialism because there will always be a mix of bad and good at any given point in time. DK will still be Donkey Kong even if Pixels is a Bob-omb, and I’d rather celebrate that advancement than fret over Adam Sandler’s involvement in another Adam Sandler picture.

 

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