[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Phil Johnston, Jennifer Lee, Rich Moore, Jim Reardon | Director: Rich Moore | Aired: 11/02/2012]
“Man, it must be nice being the good guy.” – Ralph
If you’re of a certain age, you may remember a time when electronic gaming consoles weren’t just a dime-a-dozen. A time when kids would regularly head into town with a bagful of quarters, eager to spend a few hours with Pac-Man and Donkey Kong and Centipede and Space Invaders. A time when arcades flourished, the flashing lights of their myriad games standing out against dimly lit walls and ceilings, beckoning the average youngster to come get lost in the 8-bit wonder of a pixilated world.
If you’re of that age, you may feel a twinge of nostalgia while watching Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph. Sure, the younger generation will enjoy the film, too, and not without reason – Wreck-It Ralph is a funny, heartfelt, superbly-designed film all around – but having that extra sense of recollection to contrast the modern-day world of gaming with that of the past adds an extra dimension to the viewing experience. That’s because Wreck-It Ralph is more than just an enjoyable family flick – it’s also an excellent spotlight on the evolution of video games.
Start with the miniature universe the film expertly crafts. The writers clearly want us to identify with the world of the video-game characters, and many familiar faces pop up in the early scenes. Sonic, Bowser, M. Bison – these and other iconic faces of interactive entertainment give the world Ralph inhabits a distinctly familiar air. But as the film progresses, it slowly shifts its focus over to entirely new characters and environments. Ralph may have some Donkey Kong DNA in him, and the games he treks through are similarly reimagined from other famous properties (Sugar Rush, for example, is a candy-coated Mario Kart). But that’s all part of the plan. The characters and scenarios of Wreck-It Ralph are meant to feel comfortingly familiar, yet distinctly of their own; we comprehend them as video game characters on a par with Link and Kirby, yet we also see them as original characters to get emotionally invested in beyond their gaming roots. (A film about the actual Donkey Kong would have a much more difficult time clearing that second hurdle.)
The moral of Wreck-It Ralph may not be a new one – just be yourself, the film repeatedly asserts – but it filters that moral through a creative new lens. The film is sure we never forget it takes place in a computerized world – several times, for instance, do the characters refer to their regenerative properties – so that we can fully appreciate the clever new take on the day-old message.
Video-game characters, in the long-term, do not change – no matter how a single game may track or alter their storylines, they revert to their initial selves with the literal hit of a reset button. Whereas past Disney films have featured a gridlocked protagonist intent on breaking the mold, never has that mold been as firmly held in place as the one in Wreck-It Ralph.
Ralph (an excellently-cast John C. Reilly) may exist as a villain, but he wants more than anything for his status to change. He’s played thankless antagonist and second banana to Fix-It Felix (30 Rock‘s Jack MacBrayer) for three decades, and wants a chance at playing the hero. It’s an intriguing premise, due to the fact that – barring a serious coding rewrite – there is no way that Ralph could ever become a video-game hero. The film lures us in with this tempting little premise, and before long, it starts overturning every expectation we may have.
Wreck-It Ralph was released a year before Frozen, a Disney film that has become famous for subverting every character type in the book. But in many ways, Ralph feels like a warm-up for Frozen‘s stylistic subversions – we have a villain who makes for a sympathetic protagonist, an affable goof who turns out to be the true villain, and an annoying-yet-lovable sidekick who is revealed to be a princess. That third example is particularly daring – over the last few decades, Disney has almost single-handedly made the inclusion of princesses in animated films into a blatant marketing ploy. But Vanellope von Schweetz (the hilarious Sarah Silverman) is the most unconventional “princess” in the Disney canon – while she spends much of the film unaware that she is the true ruler of Sugar Rush, she shuns her gown and royal stature even after learning of her “true” identity.
These character archetypes are merely mechanisms of the story, but they serve to underscore the film’s crucial theme of stasis. And it’s a theme that extends beyond Ralph’s ultimate understanding and acceptance of the fact that he will always be a villain (which I’ll discuss in a few moments). The concept of stasis in fact becomes a key point in the film’s meticulous analysis of video games.
Back in the ’80s, plenty of video games had clever concepts, but they were fairly simplistic and straightforward – hunt the ducks; shoot the centipede; eat the pellets while avoiding the ghosts. It was a time when pixilated renderings forced gaming designers to show as much as they could in the smallest amount of space. This also meant that stories needed to be simple – there couldn’t be much ambiguity or nuance in the characters, nor much complexity in the stories. Though plenty of these games had their charms, they were two-dimensional in most every sense.
In the decades since, however, video games have grown with the rise of technology. Now we have games with digitally-rendered imagery, complicated stories and detailed characters, and worlds that feel as three-dimensional as our own. There’s no question that video gaming has come a long way as an art form. And no film demonstrates this fact as well as Wreck-It Ralph.
Start with the 80s-designed game of Ralph’s home game. The world of Fix-It Felix consists almost entirely of a tall apartment building, a mud puddle, and a garbage dump. The characters, too, are simplistically rendered, outside of Felix and Ralph – the Nicelanders move in a jerky, almost erratic fashion, their pod-sized little bodies having no genuine fluid motion. (Hats off to the animators for achieving this effect with three-dimensional renditions of these characters.)
Contrast this with the more modern games in the film – Hero’s Duty features multiple characters coexisting in a large-scale battlefront world, complete with a treacherously designed tower filled with ominous cy-bugs. Even more impressive is Sugar Rush, which crafts an entire world of confectionary pun-based landmarks (my favorite: the pit of Nesquik-sand) and stretches without seeming end in every direction.
Even the characters, comparatively speaking, are worlds apart. As the title hero of his game, Fix-It Felix is the most gosh-darn lovable guy you’ll meet, with a perfect smile on his face and nary a coarse word from his mouth. Calhoun, on the other hand, is a heroine far more in line with the terrors of Hero’s Duty – she’s tough, spiteful, and equipped with a tragic backstory. (Her fiancé was killed by a cy-bug at their wedding.) That the film ultimately pairs these two characters in an “opposites attract”-style romance emphasizes the differences between the two heroes, making them as unlikely a Disney coupling as any since Beauty and the Beast.
But the most dramatic differences between then and now occur from our protagonist’s perspective. Ralph experiences a rather rude awakening when he makes the jump from his own game to Hero’s Duty, discovering that the “wrecking” found in modern games is far more extreme than he anticipated. (“I thought this was going to be like Centipede!” he screams at the first-person shooter. “When did video games become so violent and scary?”) Ralph still lives in a bygone era – he spends his day stealing cherries from the original Pac-Man game and attending “BadAnon” meetings with such old-school villains as Bowser and Zangief. So he’s a veritable fish-out-of-water in the modern games, with the only real commonality being the opportunity for him to win a medal.
And that’s the gist, isn’t it? Ralph’s motivations, like his character, are appealingly simple. No matter how complex or intimidating the game, he sees each one as an opportunity to earn a medal – a supposed object of self-validation. Ralph’s willingness to adapt to each new game’s environment in order to obtain this rather simple prize puts him at an alarming parallel with the film’s villain, King Candy… or, in actuality: Turbo.
Who is Turbo? Back in the calcified ’80s, he was the star of the most popular racing game in the arcade. But time, and improved technologies, threatened to dethrone his position. He attempted to dominate a newer racing game, and maintains his monopoly even now as King Candy, the fabricated star of Sugar Rush. Turbo demonstrates the dark side of being a hero – the threat of fame going to one’s head, to the point that the need to be loved usurps logical reasoning. Though several characters express worry throughout the film that Ralph has “gone Turbo,” Ralph’s motivations stem from entirely different roots than that of the popular racing icon.
Like Turbo, Ralph finds himself adjusting to the world of Sugar Rush – yet he never sells his pixilated soul in the process. Turbo rewrote the entire code of Sugar Rush around him, embracing the world of modern games in a demented and disturbing way. Ralph, meanwhile, never feels fully integrated into either Sugar Rush or Hero’s Duty, despite his myriad attempts to fit in. When Turbo, during the film’s climax, transforms into a frightening King Candy/cy-bug hybrid, he more than ever embraces the intimidating features of modern gaming, and Ralph appears more helpless and out-of-touch than ever.
“Thanks to you,” the mutated Turbo boasts to Ralph, “I’m now the most powerful virus in the arcade!” It’s a fitting description on multiple levels – earlier in the film, Calhoun compared cy-bugs to a virus, noting that “They don’t know they’re in a game.” By the film’s climax, Turbo has become so mad with power that he transcends the description of mere video-game character. He has quite definitively become the most realistic threat in the arcade.
But when all is said and done, Turbo is not defeated by an anti-virus program, or a squad of Hero’s Duty soldiers, or any other credible combatant to modern-day video-gaming threats. No, he is defeated by… wrecking. Just like he’s been doing for the last 30 years, Ralph saves the day by wrecking a large construct (in this case, the Mento stalactites of Diet Cola Mountain) before ending up in a giant puddle of mud. (Or chocolate, in this case.)
Ralph’s great heroic feat is boosted – first spiritually, then physically – by Vanellope, who goes through a heroic arc of her own in the film. Though she initially appears to be an irritating antagonist, Vanellope quickly grows into a likable foil for the film’s protagonist, one who injects both levity and heartfelt emotion whenever the need arises. Sarah Silverman’s high-pitched comedic inflection perfectly balances with John C. Reilly’s deep-voiced grumblings, creating a wonderful duo to drive the film. Vanellope is unabashedly rude and immature, but like Ralph, she is driven by the need to prove her worth as a likable video-game character. And like Ralph, she’s a pariah in her own game – shunted out and contemptuously branded by other racers as a “glitch.” (The film has a little too much fun with that word at Vanellope’s expense, though thankfully, the climax avoids any utterances of “The glitch is back!”)
Wreck-It Ralph overplays its hand a bit in world-building as it comes up with an overly complicated reason for why Vanellope should not be allowed to race. Still, the point must be made in order for the final revelation – that she is in reality the star of the game – to be driven home. Vanellope, by this point, has come to enjoy her glitching abilities – as with Ralph, we see how her physical flaw can be turned into a benefit. It’s a development that creatively embellishes the film’s “Be yourself” message, while also rounding out the primary theme of stasis.
By the end of the film, Ralph is essentially back where he began – but with the added benefit of having his game christened as “retro” by the young arcade-goers. It’s a fitting reward for a character who has held his own against the terrors of modern gaming, and has upheld the good faith of classic ’80s games everywhere.
Disney is currently in the midst of a new Renaissance, as evidenced by the invigorated plotting of Tangled, the subversive storytelling of Frozen, and the delicate messaging of Zootopia. Wreck-It Ralph may not have achieved the popularity level of those films, but in its own way, it warrants just as much recognition and appreciation.
Well… not just as much. Great as this film is, it’s still not quite as complex, thoughtful, or effective as Frozen. But that’s a review for another time…
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ I really love the jerky, erratic way the Nicelanders move. Reminds me a bit of the pigeons’ heads in Bolt.
+ Clyde turning to “edible ghost” form when Ralph says he’s tired of being the villain.
+ Pretty much every metaphor that comes out of Calhoun’s mouth.
+ So, so, so many candy-based puns in Sugar Rush. Don’t start me, or we’ll be here all day.
+ Alan Tudyk does a fun job voicing King Candy, riffing on Ed Wynn while not outright copying him.
+ Ralph “hitting a guy with glasses.”
+ “Dynamite gal… dynamite gal… dynamite gal…”
+ The way characters refer to things like “regenerating” and “bonus levels” as part of their worlds adds so much texture to the story. Bonus points for having Calhoun be consciously “programmed” with the most disturbing backstory in Hero’s Duty.
– What’s with the training montage set to “Shut Up and Drive”? The scene is fun, but the music choice feels out-of-whack with this film.