Never Judge a Film by Its Book.To get it out of the way let’s discuss how the film works as an adaptation of its source material. Ultimately, it does a good job. It hits the points throughout that it needs to, and while there is a lot missing that will disappoint fans of the book, and some events and situations have been remixed to accomplish ultimately the same thing, overall it captures the spirit of the book fairly well.
Indiana Jones, E.T., and Tintin Walk Into A Bar.What Spielberg manages to do here is hit the right level of referential content that allows all viewers to get some pleasure out of it at one point or another. It hits on 80’s nostalgia, the current video gaming community, and encapsulates, in general, the classic adventure films Spielberg is well known for. For those who are perceptive enough to get all the pop culture being spewed at them, it’s sure to be the most satisfying, but it works well enough on its own that youngsters who are left completely out of the loop will still be entertained by the straightforward story. There’s a lot of content being hinted at and referenced, whether subtly in the background or taking mainstage front and center. Movie characters, locations, props, soundtracks, and directors intermingle with video game IPs, clichés, and history. A nod to a director here, a hint of a character in the background, a full-fledged reenactment of a classic movie scene there; it’s enough to put a smile on your face and a warmth in your chest. There are certainly jokes that land on their own, but most of the humor comes from so much classic and contemporary pop culture content mixing within the context that this virtual world allows.
All the Pixels! Visually this all comes together in breathtaking style. The effects are phenomenal all the way around. The performance capture used for the character’s VR avatars is stunning, with everything else about the multiple worlds being fully realized in incredibly nuanced detail. The action sequences on display really do showcase what Spielberg is capable of, and we know he’s always been top-notch at delivering compelling and exciting action. The race at the beginning of the film is absolutely riveting, I found myself stunned by a concoction made of glee and disbelief. While I didn’t feel that anything lived up to that afterward, all the grand battles and crazy tests that follow are handled with just as much competency and care as anything else. This is Spielberg after all, if he’s not leaving you awestruck he’s at least carefully guiding you along for an entertaining ride.
Friendship is Magic. The biggest flaws fall mostly in the second half, where things become a little too convenient and cheesy. Altogether I never felt that any of the issues resolved, obstacles overcome, or relationships developed were earned in any way. I didn’t believe anything that was happening was realistic or justified, and motivations and emotions were as shallow and straightforward as they can get. The book doesn’t really offer all that much in the way of in-depth character development and such either, so I can’t really fault the film for not doing much better. However, as much fun as this kind of film can be with large action set pieces and countless pop-culture fun there’s still that special level that it never elevates to because of the lack of personal connection with the characters on screen.
Spielberg delivers a visually stunning, fun, exciting, pop culture riddled adventure that lands just far enough from greatness due to shallow character development and a second half that feels too convenient and hackneyed to be satisfying.