This is Pixels, the feature: It stars Adam Sandler, an actor—to borrow a phrase from Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band—who doesn’t have charm. He has counter-charm. It also stars Kevin James as Paul Blart, Mall Cop gets a promotion to president of the United States. Sandler plays a one-time arcade-style video game whiz who now installs electronic equipment for a living. (The movie presents him as a loser because of his job, but screenwriters Tim Herlihy and Timothy Dowling might have stopped to consider that not everyone can grow up to write terrible screenplays.) These two, along with Josh Gad as a conspiracy nut and Peter Dinklage as a scammer-turned-jailbird, are what stands between the world and total annihilation when aliens in the form of beloved videogame characters attack. It has a few things going for it, namely Dinklage, who is clearly having a blast playing a jerk; a sly insertion of “jiggery-pokery;” Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” on the soundtrack not once, but twice; and a prologue that evokes summer days gone by back when nearly all American kids were free-range kids. But it is also at least 20 minutes too long (with a tacked on last act that merely serves to pad out the running time) and just feels too much like the usual summer bombastic apocalypse. Also, there is a missed opportunity here: Why did it not occur to anyone to recruit Jason Alexander to pay homage to the classic Seinfeld “Frogger” episode?
What inspired director Chris Columbus’ bid for big, dumb summer fun is something altogether more modest: Patrick Jean’s 2010 short Pixels. Less than three minutes long, there are no heroes, only aliens in the guise of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and other classic game characters invading New York. It’s sly and smart and full of more imagination in its tiny running time than anything in the feature. It’s a jewel. To watch it after seeing its new bloated companion is to be aware that just because you can make something bigger doesn’t mean that you should. When it comes to Pixels vs. Pixels, smaller is better.—Pam Grady