Guest Movie Review: Wreck-It Ralph
Like most adults my age, I had a more diverse selection of influences growing up than my Baby Boomer parents. What drove and developed them was limited by the technology of the time, but I grew up in the Internet Age: I had a lot more input, from a lot more places. I’ve watched every possible influence go digital over the past decade. I listen to most of my music on MP3s or on Internet radio; I own my favorite movies on Blu Ray and stream old TV shows on Netflix; I read The Hunger Games and its sequels on my Nook. But there’s one entertainment source my parents never really experienced growing up, and one I’ve never seen converted to digital because it was already there to begin with: the world of video games.
I’ve been playing video games for most of my conscious life. It all started one Christmas in the mid-1980s, when my parents bought my sister and me our first gaming console, the Nintendo Entertainment System. Since then, I’ve been as enthralled by the stories of Mario, Guybrush Threepwood and Commander Shepard as I have of Frodo Baggins, Kunta Kinte and Luke Skywalker. I’ve personally owned six different gaming devices, am an avid computer gamer, and spent more than a few days during my youth at the local arcades. And I’m a moderate example of the gamers of my generation. There’s no escaping the fact that, despite the cries of their constant critics, video games have and will continue to have an impact on young people’s development into adults. Recognizing this, Disney brings to us Wreck-It-Ralph, an animated feature that celebrates our collective nostalgia for the early days of classic games.
After we watch the animated short Paperman (a lovely and inspiring tale featuring music by Academy Award-winner Christophe Becke), we’re introduced to a world in which the after-hours of a small arcade turn into downtime for the hundreds of video game characters who live there. Convening at the surge protector into which all the games are plugged (dubbed Game Central Station), the characters can hang out, visit other games, and otherwise enjoy their time off until the arcade opens again. Today is the 30’th anniversary of Fix-It Felix, Jr. (based somewhat on the classic title Donkey Kong), and for most of the denizens of the game, it’s a cause for celebration. That is, with the exception of the game’s singular villain Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), who is tired of being rejected by the people around him and envies the hero worship heaped upon the titular Fix-It Felix, Jr (Jack McBrayer). He subsequently “jumps” into other games in an attempt to become a hero and earn some respect, but his efforts might not only hurt the people he is trying to impress, but the heroes and villains of every game he visits as wellrir.
Wreck-It-Ralph masterfully tiptoes that delicate balance many similar animated films fail to achieve: it appeals to both children and adults equally. For the kiddies, director Rich Moore (in his feature debut) loads up the movie with fun and simple characters, wonderful animation, diverse and cleverly-conceived worlds, and a little bit of (but not too much) toilet humor. For adults, these elements are all enticing, but it’s the nostalgia of seeing classic game characters on the screen (and a rich, evocative story that feels way beyond anything Disney has tackled before) that makes it so appealing to their Gen-X or Gen-Y parents. Disney gobbled up the rights to any and all the arcade game characters they could, and anyone who grew up in the 1980’s and 90’s will greet the likes of Qbert, Pac-Man, and Street Fighter’s Ken and Ryu with smiles and fond memories. Even if these character cameos do little to push the story forward, they do lend an aura of authenticity that keeps the audience as engaged as their more juvenile counterparts.
The story itself is a blend of several different genres, masterfully combining the real world with ones in which bad guys host support groups, death is (almost) never permanent, and the divide between good and evil has been pretty clearly defined. It’s obvious Moore loves his subjects; he really delves into what makes these characters tick – their experiences, dreams and desires are meticulously plotted, and despite taking place in four distinctly different hubs, no parts of the surprisingly deep story feel disjointed. Ralph desires to be more than his programming, and the question of whether he can supersede what he was made to do is similar to others’ crises of faiths, in which many people wonder whether they are just fulfilling their creators’ (whoever they may be) designs. It’s not a perfect insight, however; there have been a few video game baddies gone good, from Knuckles the Echidna to Chrono Trigger’s Magus, and – oh, right – Donkey Kong himself. But this time, Disney Animation has managed to create its very own Pixar-like film, one whose themes would fit right in with the likes of Ratatouille and The Incredibles.
There is one aspect in which Disney is still unlike its more artistically-inclined counterpart, and that is its continued reliance on big name actors. Pixar almost never hires major players as their film leads; Disney will still pay top dollar for name actors, but they seem to have learned from experience not to go all-out for the biggest stars when nobody will be seeing their faces. B-actors such as the ones they brought in for Wreck-It Ralph are known quantities and will work hard, without demanding star billing or exorbitant salaries. John C. Reilly is the perfect example of the type of performer Disney should be hiring on a regular basis; he’s perfectly cast for the role of a misunderstood villain, remains focused on developing his character, and doesn’t try to hog glory for himself. Jack McBrayer is much the same, as his hero Fix-It Felix, Jr. is more celebrated and popular, but still retains the natural charm and innocence of 30 Rock’s Kenneth Parcell. But while we get a feel for both Reilly and McBrayer from the get-go, the film really takes off with the introductions of the two main co-stars; first the action hero of space shooter Hero’s Duty, Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a hard-edged woman due to being “programmed with the most tragic” – and also hilarious – “backstory imaginable”; the second is Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a glitchy, fun-loving racer in the Mario-Kart-meets-candy game Sugar Rush. Both possess unique elements all their own, are strong female characters in their own right, and add tons of heart, humor and brains to what was already a brilliant movie. Top it off expertly with Firefly’s Alan Tudyk as a corrupt candy monarch, and this film has one of the strongest casts in an animated feature this year.
What’s ironic is that while Disney Animation was releasing their own version of a Pixar film in 2012, Pixar’s own entry this year, Brave, feels like just another Disney Princess movie and could potentially see the studio miss its second straight Academy Awards nomination for Best Animated Feature. It’s a good sign for Disney Animation, who seem to finally be turning the corner in the 3D animation market after falling short with titles like Bolt, Meet the Robinsons and Home on the Range. This is also a strong year for animated fare, and with at least three films focused on horror themes, Wreck-It Ralph might be different enough to blow away the competition this award season. It’s not the best animated feature this year (that’s still the ultra-cool ParaNorman by a slim margin), but it still pops in at #6 for the year and is arguably the most fun you’ll have in the theater this Fall, or at least until Skyfall hits theaters this weekend. This might be a movie geared towards gamers (and they’ll get most of the minor gaming references), but you don’t need to be savvy with a control pad or secret levels to appreciate the human touch that went into making Wreck-It Ralph the excellent product it became.
John C. Anderson is a lifelong gamer, freelance writer, movie enthusiast and Foursquare Mayor living in Boston. His film reviews can be found and enjoyed on Hello, Mr. Anderson.