The number of animated features coming out this year — many of them really well-made and enjoyable by adults and children alike — is quite unprecedented. Considering how much CGI technology is used nowadays even in live-action films, one has to wonder how much longer the industry will even bother differentiating between the genres, or maintaining separate Oscar categories for them. The cinematic breakthroughs that enabled Gene Kelly to dance with Tom and Jerry in Anchors Aweigh or Dick Van Dyke to do the same with cartoon penguins in Mary Poppins seem almost quaint today. And remember the big fuss over Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in 1988? It’s old hat now.
So here I am reviewing yet another new animated movie, with a couple more due out before year’s end and a slew more on tap for 2013. They have come to represent such an important part of Hollywood’s output that film critics (and audiences) ignore them at their peril. The happy news for aficionados of the art of animation is that they aren’t just plentiful; at least half of the ones that I’ve seen in 2012 are really good, and two or three may even make my Ten Best list.
The acquisition of Pixar by Disney made this state of affairs pretty much inevitable, giving us cause to hope for many more excellent animated products in the foreseeable future and at least a few that aspire to the level of real cinematic art. The challenge, of course, is that once the latest technological advances lose their gee-whiz factor, even the top animation studios will have to stretch to come up with stories that hold their own as stories. While one might argue that nobody ever went broke overestimating the American moviegoing public’s tolerance for formulaic narratives, at some point, jazzy eye candy just won’t be enough.
As with live-action films, a whole column could easily be devoted to ruminations on the definition of originality and whether it’s truly possible to find something new under the sun. Sometimes a novel spin on old themes is good enough, if the execution is top-notch; and that’s the case with Disney’s latest, Wreck-It Ralph.
Some elements do seem awfully familiar: The protagonist — a bad guy in a low-tech arcade game from the ‘80s, reminiscent of Donkey Kong, who aspires to become a good guy — is a grouchy, lovable lunk of the Shrek fraternity, and his story arc is predictable enough. You just know that he will screw up multiple times, including failing to follow his best instincts in a way that will endanger the person about whom he cares the most, before he finally “follows his heart” and gets things right. And the moral is nothing new in contemporary kiddie fare either: Embrace what makes you different; what are perceived by others as your weirdnesses are really your strengths.
But the alternative universe depicted in this movie is so ingenious that the recycled ideas don’t matter that much. The Simpsons and Futurama director Rich Moore takes the formula pioneered by Disney with Tron (1982) — putting the protagonist (and the viewer) inside the virtual world of a computer game program — a step farther by rotating the point of view so that the “fourth wall” of the movie/game screen really does become a fourth wall. Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) and the other game inhabitants can see video arcade workers slap an Out of Order sign on their console when something goes awry in their little world.