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Anti-Heroes Anonymous: Flight and Wreck-It Ralph

Don’t be misled by its title: Flight, Robert Zemeckis’ first live action film in twelve years, is not only about a pilot or flying in the ‘plane’ sense of the word. It is mostly about flight from addiction, a flight from a foul, raw, obsession with alcohol so fundamental that it defines every move made by William “Whip” Whitaker, the movie’s anti-hero and main protagonist. Whitaker, masterfully brought to life by Denzel Washington, drinks, guzzles, swigs, downs, gulps, and boozes all manner of intoxicating liquids in just about every frame of the movie, with healthy side dishes of drugs both soft and hard. But Whitaker is also one helluva pilot, and, when the plane he’s flying to Atlanta begins a vertiginous nose-dive mid-flight, he saves most of his passengers in a spectacular crash landing, notwithstanding the generous doses of vodka and cocaine he imbibed prior to—and during—the flight. “The FAA placed ten pilots in simulators, recreated the events—every pilot killed everybody on board! You were the only one who could do it,” says Whitaker’s lawyer (Don Cheadle) to him while attempting to dismiss federal charges of criminal negligence. Yet six of the plane’s 102 passengers died on the flight, and despite his heroism, Whitaker faces the prospect of years in prison for his recklessness.

[caption id="attachment_1566" align="alignright" width="266"] Denzel Washington stars as William “Whip” Whitaker in Flight, a movie about addiction and heroism.[/caption]

What an intriguing dilemma: a pilot heroically saves the day from a tragic plane malfunction, but while drunk as a skunk. Actually, Flight is a sure contender for a bevy of this year’s Oscar nominations (from Best Picture to Best Actor and Original Screenplay), mostly because its narrative is less about the crash itself and more about Whitaker, probing the deepest darkest depths of the clinical substance abuse that reigns over his life. The screenplay, by John Gatins (Coach Carter, Real Steel), investigates Whitaker’s alcoholism, showing the unraveled fabric of his marriage, career, and relationship with his son. Watch how Mr. Washington subtly animates Whitaker’s eyes and the lines on his face as he stumbles his way through meetings and hearings and federal conferences, stewing in self-hate, and high on crack and Jim Beam, denying his rabid dependence on alcohol to everyone he meets, and most importantly, to himself. Listen to the nuance of his words as he pathetically denies his problems while betraying his masked vulnerability. A lesser actor would easily have overshot on the emotions, but Washington’s  capable talents luxuriate in infinite subtleties through every tense scene. Watching his internal battles, I was glued to my seat by a character so blind and so ravaged.

In an impeccable supporting cast, Whitaker’s colleagues, Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) are bountifully capable of their own dramatic gravitas. Anderson excels as a representative of the pilots union and as Whitaker’s chum, painfully aware of his friend’s lifelong addiction, yet powerless to help. Cheadle is the composed lawyer who defends Whitaker against his mounting legal troubles, while Brian Geraghty solidly portrays our doomed plane’s Christian co-pilot in a handful of choice, pressured scenes. John Goodman steps into view for a few minutes, playing Washington’s drug dealer-cum-friend Harling Mays in top comic form, while James Badge Dale, in the role of a cocky cancer patient, utterly electrifies despite being featured in just a single scene.

In one of the movie’s only flaws, Kelly Reilly unconvincingly plays Nicole, Whitaker’s fellow addict and love interest. Ms. Reilly is too much damsel-in-distress, too little spice-of-life, and her character’s story arc borders on the clichéd. The other flaw, or perhaps conversation point, in Flight, stems from its confusing barbs for religion. One hospital scene openly parodies Christian belief, while other symbolic juxtapositions denigrate religion on more veiled terms. Consider this: Whitaker’s plane slices a church’s steeple in half, before landing in its backyard amid a group of slack-jawed, bumbling, and white-robed Evangelicals. It was clear that a message was being conveyed, but one that to me felt shrouded and vague.

Notwithstanding that, Flight is a searing portrait of some of humanity’s best and worst instincts. Since filming Forrest Gump in 1994 and Castaway in 2000, Robert Zemeckis deviated from the live-action norm to develop motion-capture technology, which he used for his last three films, The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol. With powerful and unflinching honesty, Flight marks a return to the subtle film-making with which Zemeckis wooed audiences years ago. Watching it, you will be both disgusted and enthralled—and ultimately inspired.

In the spirit of anti-heroes, we move on to Wreck-It Ralph, which, unlike the 20th century villain of Flight, alcohol, deals with a more modern villain, one certainly more relatable to the nation’s youth, the Video Game Villain.

Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, directed by Rich More, explores the question “What happens to arcade-game characters when kids go home for the night?” Turns out they have much a life of their own. Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) is one such character, a mountainous bad guy in an 8-bit arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr., hailing from the retro tradition of Donkey Kong and Pac Man. But Wreck-It Ralph hides a soft heart under all his villainous brawn, and he says as much in his Bad Anonymous meetings. Wreck-It Ralph’s quest for good-guy status takes him to all corners of the arcade world, as he jumps from game to game, meeting new characters, saving the world, and learning lessons for kids that the movie bludgeons the viewer over the head with.

Ralph is not very ‘three-dimensional,’ but one friend he meets, Vanellope von Schweetz from the candy-themed racing game Sugar Rush, is spunky and adorable as his main ally. The other characters in Vanellope’s arcade game ostracize her because she’s a glitch—her computer coding is somehow sub-par—providing a poignant analogy for bullying, and the movie’s main source of pathos. Voiced by veteran comedienne Sarah Silverman, Vanellope is also a strong source of comic relief, as Ms. Silverman exercises her signature potty-humor despite the movie’s young target audience.

The good thing about an arcade game setting is that it offers a limitless arena for cinematic creativity. Whereas Toy Story was necessarily confined to the realism of actual toys, video games are confined only to the imagination of its designers, and the settings of Wreck-It Ralph, from its luscious landscapes to its scintillating set pieces freely exult in that open license. The arcade game also gives a welcome turn of nostalgia for the adults in the audience, with numerous references to the incipient days of technology (think Tapper and Mortal Kombat). Like Sesame Street and the Muppets, Disney caters to children but also to their chaperoning adults, who catch the numerous jokes that go way over the heads of the audience’s unsuspecting children. In one flashback scene, a teen plays an 8-bit arcade and says, “These are like the best graphics ever!” prompting a knowing laugh from anyone in the audience older than fifteen.

While it may not be memorable, Wreck-It Ralph, written by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee, can only be judged as a success, juggling comedy and sentiment with kid-friendly lessons and a heaping portion of nostalgia. Even if overtly formulaic, it is never boring, belabored, or less than competent. We’ve come to expect that standard from any movie to make it past Disney’s doors, and this sugar-glazed, candy-wrapped confection, masking a sensible gooey center, does not fall short of our expectations.