Wreck-It Ralph is the 52nd feature-length animated film out of Disney. I’ll admit that when I first heard about it I was more than a little skeptical. Of course, at the time all I knew was the name — back then it was still being bandied around as Reboot Ralph — and that it was the first film that Disney was working on after announcing that they were backing away from the fairy tale type of film that had made them famous (this also changed in the intervening years, which makes one ponder the wisdom of early press releases.) It wasn’t the ideal way to learn about the project, and it left me with a feeling of skepticism that wasn’t abated when the name changed, and lessened only slightly when I heard vague whisperings of a premise involving video games.
How expectations can change. I saw the first trailer when it came out, and my estimations of the film did a complete 180. An homage to classic 80s 8-bit video games, with guest star characters from video games from all eras, has some appeal to an old-school gamer such as myself. And the plot, about a video game bad guy who’s tired of being the bad guy, sounded like it had a bit more depth to it than, frankly, any movie based on an actual video game (and several movies which aren’t). Most of all, though, it looked like it would be fun.
It’s all of that and more. It’s about all I could ask for in an animated feature.
With a cherry on top, even.
Wreck-It Ralph is the “villain” in the 8-bit arcade game Fix-It Felix, Jr. It’s one of several games in an arcade that has a mixture of vintage games and modern ones, and when the lights are out, the characters from the games can meet each other by traveling through the wires and the surge protector to meet in “Game Central Station”. It’s there the audience meets Ralph, attending his first meeting at the “Bad-Anon” support group. Voiced excellently by John C. Reilly, Ralph is a hulking giant compared to most of the other characters, but privately has a gentle and shy demeanor. But the people in his own game don’t want to see this side of him; to them, he’s always the bad guy, somebody to be shunned. It’s the 30th anniversary of his game, and he’s not even invited to the party; he’s just doing his job, but the residents of Niceland view him as a brute. Despite the counsel of his fellow bad guys — all of whom are really nice guys just doing the job they’re created for — Ralph is deeply discontent, and wants to prove that he can be a hero. And so Ralph starts game-jumping, and this kicks off the plot. (Incidentally, the logic of how a character jumps games, and how things work when they do, is explained naturally and unobtrusively; since it’s something that would need to be addressed, it’s nice to see it handled so well.)
The game-jumping motif allows Disney’s animators, under director Rich Moore (for whom this was his first feature film), to produce some incredible visuals. I watched the film in 3D, and while it’s not essential to view it that way, it does benefit from the experience. Besides the usual addition of depth, it really highlights the contrast between the 8-bit graphics visible from the “real world”, and the more detailed world inside the games. And those worlds look terrific. Most worlds are bright and colorful, just like most video games, but the first-person shooter Hero’s Duty looks like a dark sci-fi apocalypse. And the game Sugar Rush looks like somebody took Strawberry Shortcake and made a go-cart game out of it. It’s as sickeningly sweet as you might think in appearance, but the plot manages to keep it from feeling that way.
In my nightmares, this is what hell looks like.
A movie like this doesn’t work without a solid supporting cast of characters, and Wreck-It Ralph has a great one. There’s Fix-It Felix, the hero of Ralph’s game, who leaves to try and bring Ralph back and fix the mess he’s made by his game-hopping. He’s every inch the stereotypical do-gooder, only his Gee-willickers mannerisms (voiced by Jack McBrayer) are played for laughs in contrast to the other characters and his situation. He’s contrasted with Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), leader of the soldiers from Hero’s Duty, a hard-talking hard-hitting soldier whose pre-programmed tragic backstory makes her unwilling to cut anybody any slack. Acting as Ralph’s foil is Vanellope von Schweetz, a young girl in the Sugar Rush game, ostracized for being a glitch. The gradual friendship between her and Ralph over their similar circumstances forms a lot of the heart of this movie. She’s voiced by Sarah Silverman, who does an impressive impersonation of a 9-year-old. While I knew intellectually who was voicing the character, at no point did I disbelieve the child voice. Likewise, I found all the other voices very believable, even the cartoony Ed Wynn impersonation Alan Tudyk did for King Candy. All of the voices seemed to fit the characters.
This holds true for the characters that weren’t created for the film as well. And while they are all essentially cameos, there are a lot of them. Only a few have speaking roles (if you can count Q*Bert’s squonking as speech), but any crowd scene in Game Central Station is going to have a lot of familiar characters if you’re used to any era of video game. And they all look and sound correctly, and move correctly — 8 bit characters such as the bartender from Tapper or the “Nicelanders” from Ralph’s game don’t move fluidly, but instead move in hops and jumps reminiscent of those old games. It’s perhaps the one time that non-fluid animation looks “correct”. (However, the main characters from those games are exempt, presumably because we spend too much time looking at them for the non-fluid animation to be comfortable. It isn’t distracting for the characters it’s used on, though.) The whole movie is filled with things to look out, probably more than can be spotted in even a couple viewings. Fans of video games and fans of “Easter Eggs” in movies are likely to be champing at the bit for the home video release, just so they can try and spot everything.
Pull up a chair, you’ll be here a while.
The inclusion of so many existing video game characters as cameos will inevitably draw comparisons to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. This is entirely appropriate. Just as Who Framed Roger Rabbit was clearly made by people who loved classic cartoon characters, Wreck-It Ralph is a love letter to video games (particularly the classics, but not limited to them). Setting it in an arcade, the cameos, the visual styles of the different games, sound effects, it all adds up to a major delight for fans of video games. It even has a new song by Buckner and Garcia — the guys who created “Pac-Man Fever” — in the end credits (sadly, Garcia died before the song was finished, but Buckner insisted on him being credited as well.) It’s all very classy in its respect for the medium it’s inspired by.
And for people who aren’t big fans of video games? They’re not going to be lost by this film. The plot is easy to follow while not being easily-predicted, and is a lot of fun. The cameos add to the film’s charm, but I don’t believe they would detract from it if somebody didn’t know who a character was; anything the audience needs to know is readily apparent in context (such as Zangief being a bad guy, but not a bad guy.) The story and characters are strong and engaging, and should easily draw in anybody. The fact that Wreck-It Ralph is based on the concept of video games is simply part of the setting, and just as one doesn’t need to know about computers to enjoy TRON or be a NASA scientist to enjoy Apollo 13, one does not need to be a fan of video games to enjoy Wreck-It Ralph. The film also has a strong sense of humor, which runs the gamut from slapstick to some pretty dark satire (Calhoun’s backstory, for example, is so over-the-top in its tragedy that it’s darkly funny at the same time). No matter what your tastes in humor, there’s probably something you’ll laugh at in Wreck-It Ralph.
2012 is shaping up to be a tough year for me to decide on what might be my favorite film. But with lovable characters, a fun sense of humor, fantastic visuals, and a great story with a lot of heart, Wreck-It Ralph is a strong contender.
Post-script: The animated short film Paperman that precedes the film in theatres is charming and has a refreshing visual style. It’s not quite the “must see” that I’ve seen it described as, but it’s different, and I think most people will enjoy it quite a bit.