Josh Miller: The world of Wreck-It Ralph is Who Framed Roger Rabbit? by way of Toy Story, only with video games. Similarly to Toy Story, Ralph let’s us know that inside the hulking video game consoles at our local arcade (not that there are many arcades these days), tiny worlds exist. Just like workers at a factory, when the arcade closes, the characters in the games go off the clock and relax. Traveling along their consoles’ power cords, the characters can meet up and hang out and even toss back a few at a bar. It is a mostly carefree life where everyone knows their place in the world. Except Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), the villain in an old school Donkey Kong-esque 8-bit game called Fix-It Felix Jr.. Ralph is tired of always being treated like a villain, while watching Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer) treated like a hero. Ralph knows he isn’t a bad guy, he just plays one. So Ralph goes AWOL from his game, on a quest to earn a “medal” for heroics in another game — thinking this will earn him the love and respects from the citizens in Fix-It Felix Jr. When Ralph ends up missing his shift, forming a friendship with young Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a fellow outcast in the Mario Kart-esque racing game called Sugar Rush, the Fix-It Felix Jr. console is declared “out of order” at the arcade. If the game is declared broken, all the characters inside are doomed. So Fix-It Felix Jr. sets out to bring Ralph back.
The golden age of video games is generally considered to have kicked off in 1978 with Space Invaders. Four years later Disney released the first major movie about video games, Tron. Since then video games and movies have come together in a shockingly high number of awful and disappointing flings. For a while it was easy to blame the crap quality of these films on a generation gap between young gamers and Hollywood. But after a while it was just inexplicable why no filmmaker seemed capable of creatively exploring video games, or, at the very least, appropriately portraying video games on screen — seriously, how, in 2012, can we still have scenes of actors mindlessly button-mashing a controlor while pretending to play a game?!?! It makes no goddamn sense. Well, leave it to Disney to jump back into the ring and show everyone how it is done. Wreck-It Ralph is not only a perfectly tapped-in video game movie, but it is a resounding success creatively too. It isn’t quite an instant masterpiece, but it comes dangerously close at times. It is heart-warming and heart-breaking, and above all else, hilarious. I adored it.
Tim Kelly: If Wreck-It Ralph isn’t the best videogame movie of all time it’s certainly the finest to ever feature a character from Street Fighter II. Or Mortal Kombat. Or Super Mario Bros. What director Rich Moore and Disney have made is a movie that just simply gets it. From the dank, dingy lightshow of the arcade to the immense world-building happening within its circuitry, Wreck-It Ralph is a blast the whole way through. Those of us old enough to remember the arcade boom of the early-to-mid 90s will find plenty of nostalgia to enjoy, while kids will settle in easily thanks to the interplay with Ralph and Vanellope. Disney is in full crowd-pleaser mode here and for the most part it works effortlessly. Also impressive is the attention to detail here, as the animators clearly devoted a lot of time making the world inside each game feel distinct. When a cake hits Ralph in the Fix-It Felix world, it drifts below his face making a pixelated mess. When he faces off against the viral Cy-Bugs of Hero’s Duty, the world’s next-gen visuals are clearly too much for him to keep up with. But it’s the filmmakers’ ability to keep this story so beautifully coherent that left me appreciating Ralph as something special. All this world-building and hopping could have made for a trainwreck. That Ralph’s quest is able to wring empathy throughout, is highly impressive indeed.
My caveats lie with the film’s status as a walking billboard. I’m appreciative of cameos by Sonic, Zangief and the bartender from Tapper, but do we really need the kids in the arcade drinking out of cups from Subway? Or an army made up of Oreos? It’s that kind of bought-and-paid-for mentality that appears throughout Wreck-It Ralph that threatened to take me out of the film at times. It’s minor, but it’s there.
Josh: Interesting. I didn’t even notice the product placement. I wonder if having to digitally render and create a Subway cup in an animated film is more demeaning to a filmmaker than simply having a prop guy stick an actual cup into the set dressing of a live-action film. But anyhoo…
Speaking of Tapper: using Tapper as the bar that Ralph sulks in completely killed me. I’m not much of a gamer, but all the video game in-jokes and riffs were integrated so smartly that they go beyond mere demographic pandering. It would have been easy to just stick recognizable video game characters in the film, have them say a famous catchphrase or two, and call it a day. But the way the Disney team integrated gaming logic, rules and imagery into every layer of Ralph was really inspired — very much in the same vein that Pixar continues to incorporate the world of toys into every aspect of the Toy Story franchise. As you already mentioned, things like that blocky pixelated spray pattern of that exploded cake. Or the herky-jerky movements of the citizens of Fix-It Felix land. Or the way the human playing as the first-person-shooter is represented and treated within the reality of Hero’s Duty. Frankly I was impressed with the restraint Disney had in using existing video game characters. Based on the chat I had with Rich Moore, it was entirely within their power to use any and every existing character, including Mario (the reason the Great Mustachioed One doesn’t appear in the film will be explained by Moore in my forthcoming review). But as with Roger Rabbit, the line had to be drawn somewhere. Moore was savvy about using just enough real characters to make the world feel legit, but also keeping them at arm’s length to prevent their existing personae from overtaking that of the original characters. And Disney is finally getting their head back in the game when it comes to character.
Tim: Indeed, and it’s important to note how organic the original characters feel to what’s already established. They’re very much in the vein of what you’d see in an Electronic Gaming Monthly circa 1991. I sensed the reason we don’t meet Donkey Kong (and Mario by extension) is because that’s essentially where Fix-It Felix the game was lifted. It lets Ralph and Felix, in addition to Ralph’s conundrum, feel familiar while still being altogether new to film. But the games, in addition to some minor aesthetic choices, are where the similarities end, because Ralph and Felix are fully-realized characters. It’d have been easy to make Felix (performed by the almost too-right-for-the-role Jack McBrayer) the villain here.
Josh: It was the part McBrayer was born to play.
Tim: You mention Roger Rabbit, and the similarities clearly extend beyond a surface level, so much so that I’d say this film has more in common with Zemeckis’ 1988 cartoon mashup than perhaps even Toy Story. So much so that Charles Fleischer should get a cut of Alan Tudyk’s check, as the actor’s King Candy sounds eerily similar to Fleischer’s performance as the titular rabbit. But this concept of fantasy becoming reality the moment we turn our backs? That through line is apparent in all three aforementioned films.
Josh: I definitely agree that the film edges more toward Roger Rabbit than Toy Story, in regards to how it treats and re-purposes our existing knowledge of video game conventions and characters. And I can’t speak for Charles Fleischer’s inspirations for Roger Rabbit’s voice, but Tudyk was hardcore channeling Disney legend Ed Wynn (Mary Poppins, Alice in Wonderland) as King Candy — as were the animators. A really delightful and almost unrecognizable vocal performance from Tudyk.
All this talk of “character.” It was bound to happen after Pixar and Disney were mooshed together. 2012 seems to indicate that Pixar and Disney have officially rubbed off on each in a big way, for better and worse. You and I already slapped antlers earlier in the year over Brave, but my disappointment with the film had a lot to do with how very Disney and not very Pixar the film felt. Conversely, to my great pleasure, Wreck-It Ralph feels every bit Pixar and thankfully nothing like what we’ve slowly come to accept as a “Disney film” in the past two dispiriting decades. Tangled was a big step in the right direction, and Ralph is a fruition of Pixar’s much needed influence at the Mouse House. For too long Disney seemed to think they could just slap obvious archetypes on the screen and we’d buy it. But we didn’t. And Pixar and eventually even Dreamworks made Disney look like creatively bankrupt assholes. I thought Vanellope was a little too preciously one-note at times, but she never threatened to sink the film for me. And more importantly, Ralph is a wonderful, wonderful character, juiced with a perfect blend of pathos, humor, and thuggishness that only someone like John C. Reilly can make seem effortless. Ralph is a flawed man, and that’s what makes his journey heart-breaking at times. Because there are aspects of him that are predisposed to villainy. Without that shade of darkness, it would have all seemed too unfair for Ralph that he’s been cast as a bad guy. But as Moore plays it, those moments where Ralph begins to doubt if he’s capable of being a hero really work and tug at ye ole heart strings.
And as far as good female characters, Jane Lynch’s badass hot-mama Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun – “programmed with the most tragic backstory ever!” – makes up for the lesser qualities of Vanellope.
Tim: Vanellope’s arc is certainly the most “Disney,” glaringly so in the final stretch – and its not hard to imagine a virtual reality ride as the character’s passenger coming from all of this. But I found Sarah Silverman’s performance too adorable not to embrace the character. There’s the right amount of attitude mixed in with the saccharine and I credit it more to Silverman than the script. Vanellope could have been an easy character to get wrong and, truth be told, no other performance would have the potential to sink the film more than this ever-present character. It’s a fine line they had to walk, but I found myself rooting for her.
And perhaps it’s just my Jane Lynch fatigue acting up, but she felt wrong as Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun, who I view as more of a Sammus type. But as Josh touts, John C. Reilly shines the whole way through. Ralph’s brutish facade is mixed with Reilly’s own affable charm that, of all his characters, reminded me most of Dr. Steve Brule in the early going. It isn’t long before his dreary aloofness is replaced with cynical determination however, as Ralph leaves his comfort zone to prove himself a hero. But that’s also where the film takes a misstep. As so much of what’s awful happens not to Ralph, but because of him. It’s asking a lot of a kids movie, I know, but Ralph’s accountability is all over the map for the duration of the film. And even though my eyes felt a minor lubrication when Ralph finally steps up and takes one for the team, the character is fairly culpable throughout.
Josh: Which is oddly enough exactly what I liked about the character of Ralph, the ways in which he really was a goon, and not just some totally misunderstood and shit-on innocent. He did have a lot to make up for.
Structurally the film is not what I expected. The ads – rightfully so – play up the game-hopping element of the film, without really delving into the actual plot. Those looking for a storyline utilizing an escalating series of game-hopping will be very disappointed. The number of different games you see in the trailers is what you get. But I think we got just enough hopping in the first half of the film to properly explore the gimmick, and also hint at the vast universe of possibilities for sequels (I haven’t wanted an immediate sequel to an animated film this badly since first seeing The Incredibles). At some point things needed to stabilize for a story to unfold, and without getting into spoilers, obviously the specifics of what happens in Sugar Rush prevent the film from moving into a frenzied game-hopping climax — which is how I expected things to go down in Act III when I first walked into the film. Audiences should prepare themselves for a lot of Sugar Rush. And they shouldn’t be trepidatious either. With Sugar Rush, Rich Moore got to have his cake and eat it too, as candy gags start flying as fast and furious as the video game gags. I hope people like candy related puns. Cause you’re gonna get a lot of them…
King Candy’s subjects worry that he has been injured during a fray…
KING CANDY: Don’t worry, he only glazed me.
Boom! Candy pun up in your grill, suckas!
Tim: After a fair amount of world hopping, they do indeed settle into Sugar Rush. And Josh is correct, the candy puns are a lot, but never enough to rot your teeth… … … (my apologies)
I didn’t mind the film grounding itself after the first act, but the timeframe it all happens in is slightly fucked. All this character development, and it’s a lot, happens over the course of a single evening. It’s as if time stands still in gameworld, as what feels like weeks happens in the span of about 12 hours. You get the sense this is the one aspect where the filmmakers back themselves into a corner. When Ralph leaves Fix It world the game goes out of order, and if it’s still out of order by the next day we’ve already established the game gets shut down (at best rendering them useless, at worst killing them). So a lot has to be asked of the viewer to accept the short amount of time this all transpires under.
And it just occurred to me I’m trying to introduce logic to a film where Q*bert plays a hobo and bad guys have their own AA-style support group. Josh, you were saying?
Josh: Ha. Yeah, for me that aspect played as par for the course for a family movie like this. As long as the emotional beats hit their targets, I’m inclined to ignore timeframe speed. Not every emotional beat fully connected with me. As I already said, parts of Vanellope’s character and her evolving relationship with Ralph felt a little force fed as the story needed to skip ahead to a new stage in their relationship, yet I was easily able to forgive the duds based on the strength of the hits. While the film doesn’t quite reach Iron Giant-levels of intensity, I found the whole climax extremely emotionally effective.
Though the film isn’t perfect, I’m having a hard time finding anything to take it to task for. Not being brilliant at every turn is hardly an offense worthy of critiquing.
Tim: Emotion. That’s where Ralph will hit the most, right in the ticker. This one’s a crowd pleaser, and it absolutely puts Disney back on par with Pixar and Dreamworks. In Wreck-It Ralph audiences will find a film every bit as self aware as Shrek, as emotionally resonant as Toy Story, and innovative enough to avoid any further comparisons to the two. The studio had to pay the gamemarkers for the use of their characters; that won’t be the case when the inevitable sequel happens, as companies will be lining up to get their IPs into the Wreck-It Ralph business. That can be a dangerous thing for a movie geared towards kids, and I hope Disney practices restraint moving forward. I’m hesitant to fully embrace a film selling ad space, though the premise admittedly lends itself to such whoring. Regardless, serious coins are about to get pumped into this machine – and for a movie this fun it’s not a bad thing. Truth is, Wreck-It Ralph is the feel-good family film of the year and more than earns its high score.
Josh: I’m torn on how exactly to grade the film here. While Ralph never quite reaches that incandescent feeling that the best Pixar films emit, I also feel like it achieved everything it set out to achieve. And it gave me everything that I wanted out of the film too. Mentally I haven’t found myself reliving the film in the same obsessive reverence that I did with films like Toy Story or Aladdin or Finding Nemo, but I still remember the giddy emotional high I walked out of the theater with. I felt that I’d witnessed the birth of a great new franchise, one that I won’t for a second mock Disney for shamelessly revisiting time and again to fill their bank account in the coming decade. Hell, I outright demand sequels! There is so much room for the Ralph universe to grow and deepen and so many facets to explore. Like Andy’s bedroom, we only get to see one arcade. There are other arcades out there. Home consoles. And – dun dun dunnnn – the Internet. I just can’t help but be excited. For that reason, I’m giving the film…
Btw — I suggest anyone going to see the film familiarize themselves with this bizarre chemistry phenomena, if you aren’t familiar already.