I’ll be covering Wreck-It Ralph in December as part of my #Disney52 project, so this is an initial review just as a standard animation release. I also don’t really talk about the short Paperman here, as I hope to cover all the animated shorts nominated for the Oscars at some point.
Gaming is currently one of the most lucrative creative industries in the world, as developers are able to get massive profit margins from products that are (relatively) cheap to make, yet are sold for 50 quid per game. In spite of this, it’s also far more niche than cinema, music and literature, which have a richer history and wider audiences. So making a film about gaming presents the challenge of appealing to more than just hardcore Skyrim players or World of Warcraft enthusiasts. Disney doubled up this challenge by aiming a film chock full of gaming nostalgia at young audiences that may not have ever played Donkey Kong or Street Fighter II. Disney prove with Wreck-It Ralph that, as with any adaptation, homage or pastiche, story is the priority, and in-jokes are secondary. Wreck-It Ralph is not successful because gamers will understand a certain cheat code that a character uses, or because it’s got Sonic in; it works because it’s a great story, told with a lot of spirit, and the jokes compliment it instead of overshadowing it.
Ralph spends every day doing the same job – he’s a villain in the arcade game Fix-It Felix, Jr., where he destroys a building only for Felix to come along and fix it. Everyone loves Felix and is terrified of Ralph, and Ralph is understandably fed up. He doesn’t get invited to parties and he gets no appreciation for his tireless work in making the game happen. He just wants to be appreciated, to be liked, to be a hero. So he leaves his game behind, and travels to bug-shooting mayhem machine Hero’s Duty before being fired unceremoniously into Sugar Rush, a Mario Kart-alike racing game set in a world made entirely of sweets (leading to some great confectionery puns as well as a glut gaming jokes). It’s in the world of Sugar Rush that the majority of the story happens, as Ralph meets Vanellope Von Schweetz, a racer with far more at stake than his own existential insecurities.
It’s a set up that allows for some inventive, hilarious world building, as Ralph moves between different game worlds with varying aesthetics and atmospheres. So Hero’s Duty is a dark world of greens and browns, a first person Halo style shooter where everyone is ‘super HD’ and moves smoothly. This contrasts with Niceland, the world of Fix It Felix, Jr., where all the inhabitants (except Ralph and Felix, for some unexplained reason) – are little pill shaped people that move in a jerky, 8-bit style. Every land they travel to looks a little bit different, and early on the action shifts between glossy CG and how the game actually looks – such as the blocky animation of Pacman. It’s such a creative approach to bringing computer games to life, so it’s a real shame that they didn’t make more of the contrasts between animation styles; Ralph only visits a small amount of games, leaving you crying out for a bit more exploration. Compounding this desire to see more of the world is Sugar Rush, a game world that, although beautifully realised, lives up to its name after a while, the bright, popping colours creating an effect not dissimilar to drinking a slushy too quickly. That you long to see more of these worlds shows that director Rich Moore has done a great job, but also that he hasn’t exploited his idea and his world nearly enough. This leaves you hungering for a sequel.
Aside from a bafflingly pointless romantic subplot – wouldn’t it be nice to see a Disney film that didn’t force in some romance? – Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t feel much like a Disney film at all. The sharp ideas and jokes feel closer to Incredibles era Pixar than anything by the House of Mouse. This is a modern story, about as cutting edge as the kids’ studio can get, whilst dealing with boring adult issues like being unhappy in your 9-5 job; Ralph is like a cross between Woody from Toy Story and Bob Parr from The Incredibles. None of this is a bad thing, it’s just interesting to see Disney take a step in this direction, away from more traditional stories, not long after Pixar made their first Princess film. Strong box office means that we may end up seeing a lot more like this from the studio, and Ralph could well prove to be the auspicious beginning of a new stage in Disney’s journey.
One thing Wreck-It Ralph does retain from the spirit of the best Disney films is a big, beating heart that powers the story along. Great voice work from John C. Reilly as Ralph and Sarah Silverman as Vanellope Von Schweetz give the central relationship some real emotional heft, and the ending proves to be unexpectedly moving. As all the themes (and games) coalesce into one action packed, visually spectacular sequence, Wreck-It Ralph reminds us of just how entertaining and emotionally charged Disney can be. The moral of the story becomes a little murky at the end (what exactly is it trying to say? Should we change? Accept who we are? Reject labels? But then why is he saying I’m bad but that’s good?), but Ralph’s emergence as a hero is a rousing, uplifting bit of story telling. Wreck-It Ralph, therefore, is a film that follows in the footsteps of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World as a film for people who love video games, but with hilarious in jokes and references coming second to a decent, character driven story.