‘Wreck-It Ralph’ a scattered piece of animation boasting one great performance

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Wreck-It Ralph
Directed by Rich Moore
Written by Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston
USA, 2012

If, as some theorists believe, there are alternate universes where the vast infinity of possibilities in life actually come true, there’s a world out there where The Princess and the Frog was Walt Disney Animation Studios’ biggest hit since The Lion King. (Perhaps you would like to consider the alternative universe where the Holocaust didn’t happen or the AIDS virus never came to pass. For now, let us celebrate the frivolous potential of this concept.) The Princess and the Frog, in the real world, was a charming, lovely, nostalgic look back at what kick-started Disney’s second golden age of animation, and it didn’t do poorly. However, it was also not the sterling success the company was hoping for. As such, Walt Disney Pictures has tried with its two most recent efforts to balance their nostalgic needs with something more modern, something more in-your-face, something that may not have existed had the story of Tiana, a waitress dreaming of owning a restaurant in New Orleans, done better.

Tangled was the first attempt from Disney to be a typical princess movie in concept, but snappier and less antiquated in tone. Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s newest animated film, looks, on the surface, to be antithetical to everything the company has made in the past, or a great deal of their output. It’s the story of Wreck-It Ralph, the villain in a 1980s-era arcade game called “Fix-It Felix, Jr.” His sole job is to destroy a high-rise apartment building so the good guy, Felix, can fix everything and beat Ralph, who is then tossed off the roof into a pile of mud. As the game’s 30th anniversary approaches, Ralph is tired of never being accepted by his peers in “Fix It Felix, Jr.,” so he decides to jump to other games in the arcade where his game “lives,” hoping to get a medal proving that he’s more than just a bad guy. In doing so, he encounters the militant characters of a first-person shooter game called “Hero’s Duty” and the overly chipper denizens of a candy-colored and themed racing game called “Sugar Rush,” as he pursues his goal of being accepted for who he is, not what he does.

Wreck-It Ralph, directed by Rich Moore and written by Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston, is chock full of problems, but in one seriously important respect, it soars. John C. Reilly, as Ralph, delivers one of his best performances here. Reilly isn’t typically a voice performer; however, his voice brings multiple dimensions to the title character. The animation of Ralph (as with the overall look of the movie) is fine but unremarkable; still, it’s Reilly’s work that makes Ralph more memorable and relatable than a one-dimensional cipher. The rest of the voice actors, with one notable exception, is decent if unmemorable. Comedienne and actress Sarah Silverman is well-cast as Vanellope Von Schweetz, an obnoxious little girl racer in “Sugar Rush” who Ralph immediately encounters and has a bickersome, back-and-forth relationship with. She goes further here than normal in making her sometimes-squeaky voice even more high-pitched, but she rarely ever becomes too grating to listen to. That said, Vanellope never feels as fully formed as Ralph. The same is true for Felix, voiced by 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer, and Sergeant Calhoun, who’s voiced by Jane Lynch doing a variation—if you can call it that—on Sue Sylvester from Glee. McBrayer and Lynch are OK, but if you’ve seen them as Kenneth and Sue on those respective programs, they won’t surprise you much.

The strangest decision, both from a design standpoint and within the performance, revolves around the main antagonist of Wreck-It Ralph, King Candy. King Candy is the leader of “Sugar Rush,” a seemingly daffy old man who’s surprisingly dead-set against letting Vanellope race in a battle taking place after the arcade closes. As performed by Alan Tudyk and visualized by the Disney animators, King Candy sounds and looks a whole lot like the Mad Hatter from Disney’s animated version of Alice in Wonderland, or just the late comic actor Ed Wynn in general. Tudyk isn’t bad as King Candy, but the decision to make him so similar to such a familiar, beloved (or at least extremely recognizable) character is distracting. What’s more, if you think for more than one second about King Candy’s motivations as a character or his backstory—which is teased in a short scene, not fully explained—everything falls apart. So much of Wreck-It Ralph relies on Ralph’s inner turmoil, his conflicting nature; frankly, whenever the movie focuses on King Candy’s more stereotypical machinations, it feels forced, unfinished, and lazy.

Of course, many people may be enthralled by the promise in the advertising for Wreck-It Ralph of famous video game characters like Pac-Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, and more interacting with each other. If you grew up with those iconic folks, you may be giddy at the thought of seeing them on the big screen together. While the movie has a few novel ideas for how such a prospect would come to fruition, like a so-called Game Central Station where characters from various games commute to and from their worlds, don’t be fooled: Wreck-It Ralph is less interested in combining random video-game avatars from your childhood than it is on introducing characters of its own. The movie is replete with wannabe clever pop-culture/video-game jokes—hey, Felix can talk like Q-bert does! You remember Q-bert, right? And so do your kids, right? Right?—but the gags often feel too familiar and bland.

Wreck-It Ralph, like its protagonist and title character, is a movie in conflict. Does it want to be a Shrek-like story of a seemingly bad guy trying to make good? Does it want to, like Shrek, include tons of winking, witty popular-culture references, playing on the memories we have from a young age? Does it want to entertain older audiences than typical Disney movies, or does it want to be universal? A movie can be all of these things, but that movie is…well, Shrek. (And just the first one.) There are glimmers of humor in this movie, and seeing that its script is fast-paced and packed with gags, some of the bits will land. But as much as its lead performance is superlative, the movie surrounding Wreck-It Ralph, the person, doesn’t know what it wants to be and suffers as a result.

Note: Though Wreck-It Ralph isn’t a perfect film, it is preceded in theaters by an excellent short from Disney called Paperman, about an office drone who falls in love with a fellow worker bee on his morning ride to work and uses paper airplanes to try and get her attention. The plot of the short, directed by John Kahrs, is exceedingly simple, but the execution is jaw-droppingly beautiful, striking, and stunning. The short is presented in black-and-white, and utilizes 3D technology to far better effect than the feature that follows it. Paperman is worth the ticket you buy for Wreck-It Ralph, and is a slight but powerful beacon of hope that intelligence and creativity are not dead at Walt Disney Animation Studios.

— Josh Spiegel

  1. Jeremy says

    Am I crazy or is this movie about abortion? It seemed like they really drilled home the pro-life message with the Sarah Silverman character but I can’t find a single review that mentions this.

  2. Ibago says

    Josh you said in your review and in the podcast that you wanted a clear explanation about How King Candy was able to do what he did? Well actually the movie did explain it. Obviously I’m gonna be cagey because I don’t want to spoil the movie. There was a scene in the movie that explained how King Candy was able to do what he did. It happend towards the end. Where King Candy was able to take an object that wasn’t part of the game . And make it a part of the game he was in. He then gave the object to Ralph and sent him on his way. So theres the explanation on how he was able to do what he did. Because if he can take an object and change it. Don’t you think he could do the same to a game character? Wink Wink.

  3. wgdo says

    I also enjoyed “Paperman” very much.

    I did enjoyed the movie far more than the reviewer, but each to his own. I thought it was well done, and a credit to the Disney Cartoons of old.

    The thing that did raise my eyebrows a bit was the statement that the movie lost something by making King Candy too much of an Ed Wynn clone (an actor I loved but did do his last movie in 1967) while at the same time referencing a game (Qbert) that was one of the most popular arcade games of the mid 1980’s. Which of these truly would not be understood by your average viewer of today.

    I personally think they were paying tribute to two very recognizable icons, and I think both succeeded very well. The two children I took to the movie loved everything about it, and they were born after Qbert and their parents were born after Ed Wynn was no more.

    A loss for all, but then I was a very good Qbert player and was just the right age for Ed Wynns heyday.

  4. Edgar Chaput says

    Oh yeah, ‘Paperman’ was a delight.

    Clearly you didn’t enjoy the film as much as I. For me, the comedy landed, but what worked less was the theme (or themes?) it tried to develop in the narrative. I was under the impression the filmmakers were unsure of what sort of message they themselves wanted to convey.

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