Ratchet & Clank, Kevin Munroe and Jericca Cleland’s video game adaptation, is a bellwether moment for computer animation, less a harbinger for innovation than a recognition that today’s technological advances can disguise even the most entrenched plot lines with glossy animation. It can’t quite compete with recent A-list visual innovations like The Good Dinosaur’s luminescent waters or GKIDS’ masterfully diverse art styles, but it’s a testament to the Rainmaker Entertainment team’s skills that Ratchet’s hair follicles or the vinyl press of characters’ suits have a consistently hypnotizing textural sensibility.
It’s a shame, then, that the movie’s greatness starts and ends with this technical prowess, when even at its most formulaic the game series strived to upend expectations with self-awareness and manic invention. Ratchet & Clank is so indebted to the requirements of being both an accessible origin story and a franchise starter that any possibility for a tangible identity is squashed in the first five minutes by a long-rotten archetypal storyline about mismatched oddballs.
Falling off a cliff into familiarity, the story drops onto Ratchet (series regular James Arnold Taylor), a furry alien who pines for a more adventurous life outside the mechanic shop where he hustles under the beaten-down owner, Grimroth (John Goodman). In comes Captain Quark (veteran voice actor Jim Ward), a clueless blowhard who’s searching planet-wide for a new member for his Galactic Rangers, a band of gung-ho heroes responsible for policing the galaxy. Quark is the brand of character that Phil Hartman—and more recently, Patrick Warburton—have handled with aplomb. In turn, Ward nearly walks off with the movie, playing the captain as a charismatic bulldozer who lifts even the most unfunny one-liners.
Rejected by Quark for his chicken-bone physicality, Ratchet is prepared to settle into a life of mundanity until he’s thrown together with a bookworm scrapbot named Clank (David Kaye) who believes his destiny is to join the Galactic Rangers. One fluke hero moment later, and Ratchet and Clank are rising in the ranks of the Galactic Rangers. Expectedly, Ratchet’s brash sensibility melds perfectly with the wrecking ball style of the bruisers of the group, while Clank finds a kinship with Elaris (Rosario Dawson), a frequently undervalued strategist.
Elsewhere, the increasing fame of the Galactic Rangers doesn’t sit well with Chairman Drek (a typically curled Paul Giamatti), a politician with grand designs for a new planet created from the fragments of destroyed planets. In cahoots with Dr. Nefarious (Armin Shimerman)—a mistreated former member of the Galactic Rangers—they hatch a convoluted plan to trick Quark into betraying his friends, and set in motion the rest of the incredibly telegraphed story.
Part of the second generation crop of Sony platformers, along with Jak & Daxter and Sly Cooper, the Ratchet & Clank series hasn’t had the benefit of the most original stories or general lore, but thanks to an array of inventive armaments, an increasingly weaponized self-awareness and sound mechanics, it’s yielded 10 consistently solid installments. Unfortunately, this film adaptation has no sense for how to compensate for such familiarity, saving its self-awareness for throwaway gags that have no bearing on the plot. Ratchet & Clank falls victim to all the narrative and structural issues that would have been mercifully skewered in the game, instead just stealing jokes wholesale from better comedies—animated, or otherwise—without the decency to deliver them with any verve.
The comedy hit ratio is about as scattered as buckshot, and true to original developer Insomniac Games’ strengths, the film’s best jokes dissect on the absurdity of the plot, ignoring the narrative gears to establish that all of these players are actual characters. In particular, a short insert where a Nefarious minion compares a picture-perfect brochure image of the grand plan’s effects to the actual thing is clever in its understanding that these minions are less cannon-fodder than hapless creatures working a 9-5.
Visually, the movie has flashes of brilliance, like a chase through narrow canyons that feels more than a little reminiscent of the podracer sequence in The Phantom Menace, or an impressively staged duel between Clank and Victor Von Ion (Sylvester Stallone). Still, so much here is bizarrely straightforward for a series that’s thrived on anarchy: Though character designs are intricate, it’s a bit confounding that the film’s major set pieces only take place on a utilitarian space ship, for example, or in a decrepit warehouse.
Aside from the overall staleness of the proceedings, Ratchet & Clank contends with one of the most common problems of video game adaptations: It’s never as engaging to watch someone play a video game as it is to actually play the game. Too often, Ratchet & Clank serves as a sizzle reel for the games, and though that’s definitely financially the point, that doesn’t negate that there are sparks of something so much better dancing about the film’s runtime. Ratchet & Clank has built decades of goodwill, but even that can’t change the blatant fact that this is a belated cash-in on a series that passed its expiration date years ago.
Directors: Kevin Munroe, Jericca Cleland
Writers: T.J. Fixman, Kevin Munroe, Gerry Swallow
Starring: James Arnold Taylor, David Kaye, Jim Ward, John Goodman, Rosario Dawson, Sylvester Stallone, Paul Giamatti
Release Date: April 29, 2016