Director Kevin Munroe has been adamant about keeping his Ratchet & Clank film true to the 2002 Playstation 2 game on which it’s based. “[With] video game adaptations,” he points out, “filmmakers just get super arrogant in terms of the producers and the studios. [T]hey think they know better than the guys who have been working on the video game up until that point.”
He’s absolutely right. Super Mario Bros. would have been smarter to explore the colorful world of its namesake franchise instead of what looked like rejected concept art from Blade Runner. Likewise, Resident Evil could have used more of the series’ gothic horror elements, and not just the clumsy sci-fi. Max Payne needed more pain, Final Fantasy needed more actual fantasy, and so on.
So if faithfulness was the only criterion for a decent console-to-screen adaptation, Ratchet & Clank — which Munroe co-directed with Jericca Cleland — would be an A all the way. Having originally worked as an animator at Shiny Entertainment and Midway Games before moving to film, he and Cleland build their universe with a soft sci-fi touch that’s nearly identical to the games, even using many of the same background paintings. From Ratchet’s desert planet of Veldin to the more mechanized base of archetypal baddie Chairman Drek (Paul Giamatti), complex systems are rendered in clear lines that should be easy for a younger audience to to decipher. The aesthetic appears to be a mix between junk technology and a Looney Tunes short.
The directors also retain a sizable portion of the voice cast from the games. James Arnold Taylor has supplied Ratchet with sly, yet often timid, vocals since the second installment back in 2003, and Clank’s polite, sometimes droll pragmatism has come from David Kaye since the very beginning. Also reprising their roles are Jim Ward as the pompous Galactic Ranger Captain Qwark, and Armin Shimerman as Drek’s temperamental scientist (and more legitimate threat) Doctor Nefarious. While all of these performers have carved out respectable and lucrative livings as voice actors, their fame is nothing compared to John Goodman, Sylvester Stallone, and Rosario Dawson, all of whom are relegated to more minor supporting roles here. That makes Munroe’s and Cleland’s casting choices all the more admirable.
But when it comes to video games, fidelity to the source material only gets you so far, especially when the source material is as low-impact as Ratchet & Clank. The two of them meet when the latter, a good robot originally designed to be bad, escapes from Drek and crash-lands on Veldin. They soon realize that Drek’s creating a twisted kind of utopia, obliterating entire planets and combining fragments from each one to build his own perfectly idealized world. The duo eventually joins up with the Rangers in an effort to save the galaxy from Drek’s plan, and that’s about all the plot you get. That wouldn’t be a problem if there was substantial character development to cling to, but aside from some early self-doubt from Ratchet and the moral crisis of Qwark — whose ego and jealousy tempt him to the opposing side — there’s just not much there. Once the film establishes the basic premise, it jumps from action sequence to action sequence, rarely stopping to grow the relationship between the feline mechanic and pint-sized Iron Giant at the center. By the end, they’re supposed to have an inseparable bond, and yet they’ve barely even communicated beyond their brief, albeit heartwarming, introduction.
On a Playstation, where so much of the emotional arc comes from the player controlling the journey, that kind of summarized interaction can go a long way. But a film is different. A film needs to stand on its own and go deeper, not necessarily with its visuals, but certainly with its two main characters, even in a kids’ movie. Otherwise, the whole thing becomes equivalent to watching a video game, only without the fun of actually getting to play it. The filmmakers could have afforded to be a little more arrogant.