What do The Purge, In Time and Wreck-It Ralph all have in common? They are all films that squander brilliant concepts in favour of something far more generic. What makes Wreck-It Ralph better and yet more frustrating than those two forgettable films is that the first act really properly explores its central concept in a way that it utterly fails to do in acts two and three. It’s a film built on a fantastic, Toy Story-esque premise – what do computer game characters do when no one is playing – that is subsequently abandoned in favour of something far less interesting about a friendship between two misfits and how they both earn respect. The genius idea that was crying out for a bonkers, cross-game finale instead gets stuck in a swamp of literal and figurative sugar. So, let’s explore this problem further:
Act 1. The Anti-Hero is introduced as Wreck-It Ralph, who works in the arcade game Fix It Felix Jr, where every day he wrecks the building only for it to be fixed by the game’s hero, Felix. As the game approaches its thirtieth anniversary, Ralph begins to resent his role as the bad guy and seeks a little bit of appreciation for his work as a human wrecking ball. He shares these feelings with a group called bad-anon, and here is where the film reveals its trump card: a cast of recognisable computer game characters from decades of arcade and console games. Bowser, Dr Robotnic and Clyde (from Pacman) all attend this self-help group where they build up each others’ self esteem. It’s a witty idea made funnier by the presence of such familiar villainous faces.
The rest of Act 1 builds on this idea, exploring a number of different game worlds, often cutting to show what they look like on 8-bit Arcade screens as opposed to in state of the art CG. Game Central Station, the hub of all the machines, is populated by a vast array of characters to please an audience of die hard gaming fans. Sonic, Frogger and the exclamation mark from Metal Gear Solid all cameo, but what makes the first act so great is that these cameos don’t detract from original, intelligent world-building. The biggest idea of the film is not to cast Pacman in it, but is in the way that different gaming characters interact with one another; it’s the idea of a life behind the screens where people worry, party, drink and commute just like humans do. The jealousy and admiration for the newer, flashier games, and the fear of your arcade getting closed down both feel like real world concerns, which is what makes this world so engaging. Ralph’s infiltration of Starship Troopers-meets-COD game Hero’s Duty shows what can happen when different games cross over. It’s a premise ripe with the potential for excitement and big laughs. And then…
Act 2. Ralph crash-lands a ship from Hero’s Duty in the everything-is-made-of-candy racing game Sugar Rush. He accidentally brings an apparently asexually reproducing bug with him – more on that later – but is more concerned with his medal, his way of proving that he can be a hero, not just a bad guy. He meets Vanellope Von Schweetz, a ‘glitch’ in Sugar Rush, who uses his medal to get in the big race. The two then bond as she learns to race and he continues his existential crisis. Here’s where the main bulk of the story happens, as he confronts the villainous King Candy and helps Vanellope with her car before a big conclusion where she has to race to reset the game, but a horde of violent, viral insects are rampaging through the U-rated universe of Sugar Rush.
There’s a lot to like about this section, not least of which is a dramatic conclusion with a surprisingly emotional slo-mo act of sacrifice to save the day. The problem is that the film then doesn’t leave the world of Sugar Rush, thus ignoring the genius bit of world-building that was established in Act 1. The candy kingdom is nicely realised and allows for a couple of great puns worthy of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, but this film shouldn’t be about Sugar Rush; the racing game should be just one part of a much bigger picture with Game Central Station or Fix It Felix as the central focus. As it is, that Cloudy comparison wasn’t arbitrary, with the second act feeling like an early sequel to that brilliant film, whereas the first act was far more in the vein of The Incredibles or Toy Story. The film spends far too long in this game, outstaying its welcome when the audience are itching to leave behind its candyfloss colours. It’s almost as if two entirely different studios made two different films then forced them together, with the designers behind Sugar Rush apparently more powerful in the editing sweet.
Act 3. So what now, for the future of Disney? The tonal disparity in Wreck-It Ralph is representative of how the studio in the 21st century, bar one or two marvellous exceptions, was struggling to find its voice in the world of modern animation. If the first sugar-free half hour of Wreck-It Ralph was Disney doing their best Pixar, then the second half is Disney looking dangerously like Dreamworks, saccharine in every way and following a fairly rote buddy comedy formula. Ralph shows that the studio is capable of great ideas, of stunning animation, memorable characters and good films. Yet it also shows how unsure of themselves they can sometimes be, a problem which has plagued them since Hercules.
Clearly, the studio are on the up: Wreck-It Ralph is a good film, and it comes after The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, two superb, old fashioned animations quite different to Ralph‘s post-modern sensibilities. And in Frozen, Disney have managed their best attempt yet at balancing the old and new, mixing age old stories with newer ideas and techniques. Ralph goes too far in the direction of the latter and ends up losing its identity along the way. The best step forward that Disney can take now is just that: a step forward, but provided that they do it with an acknowledgement and respect for the generations of Disney films that have gone before them. With such a long lasting legacy of truly excellent film making, Disney are the animation studio with the greatest opportunity to move into the future of animation with a strong foundation in the past. I think Walt himself would look back on the 52 films I’ve covered this year with a pride at the way that his studio has explained whatever the mind could conceive.