adventure, animation, Calhoun, comedy, Disney, fantasy, Fix-It Felix Jr, Hero's Duty, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, John C Reilly, Mortal Kombat, Rich Moore, Sarah Silverman, Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter, Sugar Rush, Vanellope von Schweets, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Wreck-it Ralph
Wreck-It Ralph is the perfect film for someone with my interests. Blending the two things I probably hold dearest; video games and animated feature films, the film has been a long time coming to British shores and the focus of much anticipation. Better still the film comes from the rejuvenated Walt Disney Animation Studios whose recent output has shown the old masters back at their best. I’ve been desperate to see it and desperate for it to be good. And it gives me great pleasure to report that it is everything I wanted it to be.
The film presents the very charming idea that video arcades are still popular and sets its story on one such thriving establishment. Among the varied cabinets is one called Fix-It Felix Jr., a thirty-year old game that seems to take very clear inspiration from Donkey Kong. The game involves a huge woodsman with giant hands called Wreck-It Ralph who smashes the windows of an apartment block. The player controls Felix, the building’s superintendent who fixes everything Ralph breaks with his hammer. At the end of the game the residents throw Ralph from the roof of the block into the mud below.
But rather than just a collection of pixels on a video screen these characters, like all the others in the arcade, are real. Going through the motions of their individual roles in the game is like a job and the arcade closing each evening is their clocking off time when Street Fighter’s Ryu and Ken go to the pub. It’s a scenario that evokes such Pixar favourites as Toy Story and Monsters Inc. and it’s conceived and presented with every bit of the detail, imagination and thought you would expect from the Emeryville outfit. The games themselves are all connected via the Game Central Station, which is simply the interior of a multi-port mains connector the cabinets are all plugged into. Characters travel down the electrical cables and can visit other game cabinets. As a self-contained world it’s remarkably well thought-out, clever and believable.
The opening of the film shows Ralph talking at Bad-Anon, a self-help group for the game villains coming to terms with being feared and hated by other characters on a daily basis. Ralph sleeps each night on a pile of bricks and doesn’t get invited to parties so he’s sick of being the bad guy. Desperate to be a hero and win a medal Ralph decides to game jump, something that has serious implications for the rest of his game because when someone tries to play and Ralph doesn’t show up the cabinet is marked out-of-order and risks being unplugged entirely. Ralph’s quest for a medal takes him to Hero’s Duty, a sci-fi first person shooter and later Sugar Rush, a confectionary-themed kart racer where he meets Vanellope von Schweets, an adorable glitch who just wants to be able to race with everybody else.
What’s great about the film is the way it has huge and genuine affection for the subject matter without letting it overwhelm the touching story. Important plot points are based around the rules of the arcade games and the film is full of famous character cameos, in-jokes and gaming terminology but the heart of the film is the story about outcasts looking for acceptance and it never loses sight of that when it’s having fun. Most of the cameos, which I won’t spoil, are got out of the way early on, which is a smart move as it frees up the rest of the film to focus on the story.
There were a couple of interesting early beats I’d like to highlight, firstly in the Bad-Anon scene in which Mortal Kombat’s Kano rips out the heart of a zombie from The House of the Dead. The ESRB was created pretty much in reaction to the violence of Mortal Kombat and the famous heart-ripping fatality was one of the main reasons for that. Yet now we have an animated feature film, moreover one made by Disney, probably the most family-friendly company in the world, showing kids the same thing. Okay, it’s a zombie whose heart is ripped out and the scene is comical but I still think it highlights how far we’ve come since the early nineties. A little later Ralph is walking through the Game Central Station past a pillar showing Sonic the Hedgehog delivering a public service message warning characters not to die outside of their home game as they won’t be able to regenerate. Quite apart from supplying some important exposition the scene is also strongly reminiscent of the Sonic Sez segments at the end of The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog cartoons which gave kids important lessons, most memorably not to let people touch them inappropriately. Whether or not this is a direct reference to the cartoons I’m not sure, but if it is then it shows the film-makers have done their homework. It’s just one of dozens of references and in-jokes sure to appeal to gamers.
Ralph himself immediately takes his place as one of the studio’s most lovable creations. Voiced by a perfectly cast John C Reilly he’s something of a gentle giant whose humongous hands and imposing stature belie a soft heart. His simple desire to be accepted by his peers is heart-breaking and his search for the medal he hopes will lead to this might even conjure a tear. His dual-role as both hero and villain is interesting and well-balanced in the narrative and his fish-out-water adventures and the destruction caused by his oversized frame leads to plenty of amusement. But his character beats run deeper. His desire to be a hero leads to one brilliantly observed moment when he does something demonstrably heroic for which he is immediately hated thereby showing this his is a plight that doesn’t have easy answers. Even his story within the fiction of the game comes with a villain’s motivation that can be understood. Some have questioned how engaging a story about job dissatisfaction will be to kids to which I have to point out that Toy Story was about a rivalry in the workplace. Regardless, Ralph is a brilliant, brilliant character.
The question of villainy is naturally very important to the film. The plot does throw up a proper villain but I don’t want to spoil how that aspect of the story goes except to say that there’s an excellent moment of ambiguity and a clever twist involved. I had previously wondered if Felix, the yin to Ralph’s yang, might conceal something nefarious but he turns out to be as decent as he seems. Wonderfully characterised by Jack McBrayer he’s constantly amusing and his magic golden hammer which instantly fixes whatever it touches is a source of amusement and a useful plot device.
Then there’s Calhoun, the badass female commander from Hero’s Duty, ‘programmed with the most tragic back-story ever’. Serving as the representative for more mature and violent modern games she’s a suitably no-nonsense addition to the cast and contrasts well with the bright colours and high energy of Sugar Rush. Jane Lynch’s gravelly voice gives her tremendous character and she goes a long way to balancing the surplus sweetness with something knowingly tough.
The last important character is Vanellope, the hyperactive little girl from Sugar Rush and Ralph’s fellow outcast. As a glitch she’s forbidden from racing and although she’s not as outwardly miserable as Ralph about it her story is every bit as heart-breaking. Their relationship forms the beating heart of the movie and it works superbly. Sarah Silverman provides her voice making her appealingly cheerful and silly. The only possible issue is the way her story seems to divert attention from Ralph’s for a while but since the plot ties both their fates together and since Ralph finds what he’s looking for through her it’s not a real problem.
Some have commented that the film spends too much time in Sugar Rush but I must heartily disagree. The wonderfully realised world of candy is a treat for the eyes and an enchanting place to spend time enjoying a succession of sweet puns including one hilarious classic film-referencing joke involving Oreos. Probably my favourite moment in The Simpsons is Homer imagining himself frolicking in the land of chocolate and I have fond memories of such things as the Sweet Dream board in Mario Party 5. Frankly I could have spent longer enjoying Sugar Rush and really want to play it. The game showcases the film’s quite brilliant animation style and beautiful colours, a match for anything we’ve seen before.
Everything about the film comes together in truly balanced, satisfying fashion. The jokes are funny, the characters entertaining and appealing, the plot clever, surprisingly complex and pleasingly tied in with the rules and conventions of the arcade gaming world. It has everything a good animated film that aims for the beats that it does needs; it’s paced perfectly, there’s plenty of action and variety, there’s just enough complexity and invention in the plot and the emotional content is pitched just right. It’s one of Walt Disney Animation Studio’s best films arriving in a rich run of form for the studio. ParaNorman still deserves the best animated feature Oscar this year but if Wreck-It Ralph wins the award for the first time for Disney I won’t complain.
One last thing to mention is Paperman the gorgeous black and white animated short that precedes the film. Using new techniques that blend CGI and hand-drawn animation it’s a stunner to look at and tells a charming story of a young man trying to attract a pretty woman’s attention with paper aeroplanes. The film has been nominated for the best short animation Oscar and is an utter delight so make sure you get into the cinema in time to catch it.
Wreck-It Ralph is a wonderful film that blends nostalgia for arcade gaming with real heart by way of a cleverly-conceived plot that values its excellent characters whilst leaving room for plenty of spot-on in jokes and cameos. The last three triumphant films Walt Disney Animation Studios gave us were no accident; we are currently enjoying their finest era of film-making since the early Renaissance days. With Frozen due later this year it might even prove better than that. 52 and counting.