Ratchet & Clank, a feature-film adaptation of the long-running Sony Playstation video game series about the space adventures of a fox-like creature and his friendly robot, is one of those animated movies you watch while sensing that something is missing. You’re not even entirely sure what that “something” is, exactly, but you just know that there’s a certain spark missing from the story, characters and production design. The whole thing is more movie-like than complete movie, coming off like something which should have either gone direct-to-video or been used as the cinematic cut-scenes for a new Ratchet & Clank video game.
But then a funny thing happens: you start to notice just how many times the story has made you laugh. There’s a wry play on genre tropes here, a delightfully hammy villain there. The whole thing might be missing the same kind of spark so easily found in the bigger budget efforts from Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks Animation, and Illumination Entertainment, but it has a crystal clear point of view and an undeniable confidence. By the end, even as it sets up a sequel that will never come (not after the way it bombed at the box office) you realize you’ve been won over by the film’s charm offensive. This is probably it for these characters as far as movies go, but maybe it’s time to check out one of their video games. They seem like they’d be a lot of fun.
The story is a basic hero’s journey about a young mechanic (Ratchet, voiced by James Arnold Taylor) on a desert planet befriending a crash-landed robot (Clank, voiced by David Kaye) and leaving for adventure, ultimately pitted against a maniacal villain (Drek, voiced by Paul Giamatti) with the ability to destroy planets. Along the way, there will be plenty of wipe cuts.
Before you go making the obvious Star Wars comparisons just know Ratchet & Clank ultimately pulls its ideas from all over the place and put its own spin on things. For example, its version of the Death Star doesn’t actually destroy planets, as initially thought, but instead dematerializes them and pieces them back together with parts from other dematerialized planets because Drek wants to create his dream planet.
Drek’s emerging reign of terror forces the Galactic Rangers, an ultra-elite group of outerspace peace keepers, to recruit a new member, a position ultimately filled by Ratchet. This section of the story has as much to do with the superhero genre as it does science fiction. To be clear, none of the Rangers actually have any superpowers, and there are only four of them: the two simple-minded fighters (Bella Thorne’s Cora and Vincent Tong’s Brax), the smart one no one listens to (Rosario Dawson’s Elaris) and the especially dim-witted leader Captain Qwark (hilariously voiced by Jim Ward). It suggests a universe where we’d all be in serious trouble if the Guardians of the Galaxy or Justice League were mostly made up of and led by total idiots. There’s also a slight Galaxy Quest element at play, at least in the sense that Qwark has become addicted to the celebrity and the rest of the team roll their eyes when he seriously hams it up for the crowds.
We meet the rangers early on via a newscast Ratchet watches, establishing just how much he worships them as well as how many jokes there are going to be throughout the movie if you pay attention. In this case, when Cora is introduced the on-air announcer unapologetically declares, “And here’s Cora. She shoots first and asks questions whenever she damn well pleases, thank you very much!”
The script, credited to T.J. Fixman, Kevin Munroe (who also co-directed) and Gerry Swallow, rarely misses an opportunity for a quick little turn of phrase like that one. In fact, many of the best jokes come from side characters. Where a normal sci-fi movie would just have a disembodied voice dispassionately taking orders as the computer interface for a spaceship (ala Majel Roddenberry on the Star Trek TV shows) Ratchet & Clank has a dispassionate computer voice which is sneakily snarky. Here’s how it announces a ship’s crash landing: “We’ve run out of fuel. I told you that you wouldn’t make it, but you didn’t listen to me, did you? There are now 30 seconds until your imminent death.”
Honestly, I’d rather just stop writing this review right now and list all of my favorite jokes from the movie. There’s one where when Drek is preparing to fire his glorified Death Star one of his underlings yells out the order to fire at the top of his lungs, taking way too much joy in the moment. Drek immediately turns to him, in such a clear, amusing, Paul Giamatti voice, “Uh, Kevin, are things okay at home?” Awww. The bad guy recognizes the importance of employee morale, although only to a certain degree – if any of his soldiers are caught texting during his big speeches he immediately throws them out the airlock.
Even the on-screen text gets in on the jokes. As with so many other sci-fi movies (Guardians of the Galaxy is a recent example of this), whenever the story cuts to a new location there’s text printed at the bottom right-hand corner of the screen to let us know where we are. However, Ratchet & Clank always includes a separate line below the text to throw in a meta-joke, like “Time for Flashy Montage” or “Come one – like you didn’t see this coming.”
Of course, such an abundance of jokes constantly threatens to undercut the plot, and there is indeed rather little that you don’t see coming a mile away. There are betrayals, both among the good guys and the bad guys, and the children watching are taught a basic lesson about the power of teamwork, friendship and the fallibility of heroes (as well as the continual usefulness of magnets when fighting robots). It adds up to the type of movie I would watch with my 8-year-old nephew and actual like it more than him, unless he’s really going to get that one random joke about the Wilhelm scream.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The animation isn’t particularly impressive, clearly better than a video game but not by nearly enough. The plot isn’t really groundbreaking, and other than the titular heroes, main villain and Qwark, a glorified Buzz Ligthtyear blowhard, the characters don’t really stand out. There is a training montage which feels especially video gamey, and if you don’t already have a passing familiarity with the franchise this movie might be a tough sell. However, there is a lightness of spirit and blissful self-aware quality to the script, as if Ratchet & Clank is a kids sci-fi movie actually made for adults who grew up on sci-fi, that left me entertained if somewhat unengaged emotionally.
It’s worth mentioning that John Goodman and Sylvester Stallone also lend their unmistakable voices, the former as Ratchet’s boss/surrogate dad on the desert plant and the latter as Drek’s right-hand robot. Also, several of the roles are actually voiced by the same voice actors from the video games.
18% – “Ratchet & Clank may satisfy very young viewers, but compared to the many superior options available to families and animation enthusiasts, it offers little to truly recommend.”