It was only a matter of time. The movies have already tapped every other current and past cultural lynchpin, from your favorite old TV shows to comics and their superheroic content. So it makes sense that the latest CG 3D money machine for the House of Mouse would finally take on arcade life, more specifically, a proposed parallel world where Donkey Kong battles Megaman for a place in Zelda’s next Pooyan-sponsored Joust tournament. In Wreck-It Ralph, Disney delivers the kind of quirky post-modern crowd pleaser its now known for, using both reverence and its cheeky opposite to tell the story of what the residents of your favorite strip mall quarter drain do once the kiddies scurry and the joysticks sit idle.
Our title character (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the villain of an old fashioned 2D button pusher, the fiend destroying a 16-bit apartment building that requires the ‘hero,’ Fix-It Felix, Jr. (Jack McBrayer) to repair with his magic hammer. Popular for nearly 30 years, the citizens of this cabinet hit fail to invite their foe to their anniversary party. This makes Ralph feel angry and unappreciated, something the members of his support group, Bad-Anon (a collection of other game baddies), don’t quite understand.
When he learns that a mere medal will earn him some much coveted respect, our oversized homunculus runs off to Game Central Station, where he sneaks into a first-person shooter called Hero’s Duty. There, a feisty female Sergeant (Jane Lynch) will have none of his selfish shenanigans. A mishap then lands Ralph in the saccharine road rally world of the racing game Sugar Rush. There, he meets the King of Candy (Alan Tudyk), and his main nemesis, a wannabe go-carter named Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman).
Smart, satiric, and frequently psychedelic, Wreck-It Ralph is like the happy hallucination a 14 year old kid in 1986 might have had after ingesting a dozen or so Pixie Sticks and a liter of Jolt Cola. It’s an inventive and inviting journey into a world chock full of delightful details and wisenheimer geek shout-outs. Helmed by Rich Moore, who made his name with another slice of animated irreverence, The Simpsons, we get a richly textured universe where everything has a purpose and every possible qualm has a satisfactory explanation. How can Ralph travel from game to game? Think surge protector as way station. Where do video game character’s go to unwind after a hard day of digitized combat? Why, Tapper’s pub, for a frosty glass of root beer.
Most of the movie takes place in Vanellope’s kingdom of syrupy sweets, and the animators have a field day turning the place into a combination of Wonkaville, a little girl’s bedroom, and a dentist’s worst nightmare. There are moments when the art direction is so frantic, so completely and utter in sync with the wild-eyed mischief on the screen, that you’ll swear you dropped an entire roll of Peyote-laced candy buttons. Yet we never lose the characters in this high calorie melee. One of the things Moore does best is balance out the over the top approach to the video game concept with the needs of a normal kid’s movie – albeit on jacked up on its own unique high tech, low tech tropes.
Indeed, one of the best things about Wreck-It Ralph is the fact that it takes our knowledge of the gamer world for granted. There’s no explanations, no long drawn out sequences where ideas are broadly drawn and then beaten over our head over and over. We easily see why Ralph is sad, sympathize with his plight, and support his desire to be liked. The alien bugs of Hero’s Duty function like they would in a non-bloody shooter, their “transformative” powers put to good use on their third act call back. Even the overly precocious Vanellope, who uses nicknames like “Stink Brain” and “Booger Face” to describe her newly discovered pal isn’t excused. She’s just a glitch in a system that harbors a secret about her origins.
Along the way, the homages help sell the situation. After all, any movie that references BurgerTime, Q*bert, and Dig Dug is clearly aiming beyond the whole Nintendo 64, Playstation realm. Better still, the filmmakers create new games that you actually want to play, if only to discover the many hidden levels and cheat code consequences referenced throughout. Granted, Mario and Luigi fail to make an appearance (Bowser is present and accounted for) and your favorite intense console title is more than likely MIA. This is a family film, and while it takes risks that products of this type rarely attempt, it still sits squarely in the pleasure centers of the proposed demo, delighting them as much as it merchandises its created “classics.”
Yes, there is a slight drawback to Wreck-It Ralph, a not-so-obvious attempt to create demand where none existed before, to make sure the Happiest Place on Earth gets its own old school arcade ‘experience’ while store shelves are lined with plenty of tie-in titles for the upcoming holiday season. While Moore and his compatriots try their darnedest not to be just another arm in the corporate business model, you’ve got to get that Lucasfilm’s front money from somewhere. Yet just when it seems the whole approach is hell-bent on getting mom and dad to part with their hard-earned pay, Wreck-It Ralph recognizes how foolish that would be, film-wise, and reboots itself. Suddenly, cash is not as important as creativity, or character.
In fact, it’s safe to say that this is the first in-house production that can hold its own with the powers at Pixar. Obviously, the ongoing partnership between the two cartooning titans has rubbed off in several significant ways. There are flights of fancy here that rival anything in such computer generated masterworks as Wall-E, Finding Nemo, or The Incredibles. At the same time, Disney has defied expectations, proving that putting Toy Story‘s John Lasseter in charge of their animation department was the smartest move of many. As long as he continues on such a sunny winning streak (he also helped shepherd the recent Muppets reboot), he’s marked the Mouse for a real return to greatness. Even with its hard sell shortcomings, Wreck-It Ralph is pure arcade fun.