Directed by Rich Moore
Written by Jennifer Lee, Phil Johnson
There was a time when the big family film of the year that everyone wanted to see was in fact the Disney animated feature. It was so for decades literally, up until 1995 when Pixar, which sees its films distributed by Disney, unleashed Toy Story unto the world. From point onwards and till this very day, the most highly anticipated animated film on nearly everyone’s list is almost always the movie from Pixar, not Disney, even if the latter might not lag too far behind. A cursory glance list at some of the most recent Disney films might partially explain why: Home on the Range, Princess and the Frog, Tangled, all of which earned lukewarm to downright poor receptions. The famed studio once again aims for the fences with Wreck-It Ralph, a bizarre cocktail of fan service for people who played video games in the early 1990s, ironic product placement and attempts at moralizing for the kiddies.
Characters in video games have little say about what goes on in their lives as mere programmes whose actions are limited by what their creators permit them to do. After a long career, one such character named Ralph (John C. Reilly), is tired of playing the same role. He is the towering villain in a game called Fix-It Felix, in which he climbs atop the same condo building every day to destroy it, only for Felix (Jack McBrayer) to keep the building from crumbling. Of course Felix always wins, at which point the residents of the building toss poor Ralph from the roof. Convinced that by earning a medal he might be welcomed as a hero himself by all the supporting characters in the game, Ralph begins to game hop in the hopes of obtaining his much coveted object. Even though his trek proves temporarily successful in Hero’s Duty, his return to Fix-It-Felix takes a large detour in Sugar Rush, a racing game where he makes the acquaintance of one Vaneloppe von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a glitch which wants to become a playable character. A common enemy, King Candy (Alan Tudyk) brings them together, just as Felix and Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) from Hero’s Duty search for Ralph.
Wreck-It Ralph is a strange beast of a film. When it comes to Disney, one assumes that the writers and filmmakers will aim to please as wide an audience as possible, doing things the traditional way by either adapting a classic tale and giving it a Disney flavour or concocting an original story with little to no ties any pop culture. Say what one will about the quality from one movie to the next, it is a studio that knows how to tap into the pool of creative original writing and bold adaptations. With Wreck-It Ralph, it seems like the very first time that Disney, which has awarded Rich Moore the car keys to direct the picture, has given in to the sort of comedy and storytelling that permeates at a rival studio, Dreamworks (a Rihanna song is part of the soundtrack!). While the latter may be unfairly maligned at times, it is little secret that they regularly resort to pop cultural references to find success with audiences. Now, when done well, it really should not come off poorly. Provided the target is worthy, that the joke makes sense and is in good taste, all is good. Nevertheless, it is somewhat odd to find such humour in a Disney film.
Considering the premise, it comes as no surprise that much of the comedy is inspired by video games and their characters, many of which are quite ridiculous. Odder still is that so many of the references are about games which were popular in early to mid 1990s: Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter, Mario Brothers, etc. Even a Mortal Kombat character makes a brief appearance, which does not seem to fit comfortably in a Disney film. Perhaps this movie reviewer is, first, out of touch with video games today (which is absolutely true, mind you) and, second, out of touch with the pop culture kids and teens are talking about today (odds are high that that is true as well), but it is at least a little strange that so many of the early scenes makes connections between Ralph’s world and that of all these 20 year old games. Then again, perhaps it was the best decision to make. The premise is quite clever and holds a lot of promise, and therefore to play things as safely as possible and potentially garner as many fans as possible, the decision was made to limit the cameos to ‘classic’ video game characters that might have earned some longevity.
However, that is enough about Disney giving in to Dreamworks-style storytelling. How good is the actual film? In a nutshell, Wreck-It Ralph is amusing for the most part, yet fails to stir up some that vintage magic the animation studio was so successful with throughout most of its history. One of the film’s many issues is the murkiness surrounding the moral the film tries to get across. In fact, it does not seem as though there is just one idea, but a conglomeration of several, which is it not a bad thing in theory. ‘Be yourself, ‘ ‘There is some good in all of us,’ ‘Don’t be fooled by labels, look deeper into people to know who they are,’ there are some of the positive ideas the film juggles, yet the context in which they permeate is practically contradictory in nature. Ralph, in many respects, is a fine example of a character to drive home the aforementioned points, yet in the reality of the film world, he, along with everyone else, is but a program who ultimately must do what his creators intended him to do. This being a Disney film, it really is no spoiler to say that all’s well that ends well, yet the presentation of how the themes evolve is quite peculiar, precisely because of the limitations set on the characters due to their nature. There is incongruence between what the filmmakers would like to convey to the audience and the chosen platform.
John C. Reilly is one of the most dependable performers around, yet is not the most thrilling voice actor. This is not his first go-around with animation, having previously voiced a character in the snooze fest 9. In Wreck-It Ralph, Reilly is capable of great inflection and injecting just enough heart into a powerful character who wrestles with a structure that no longer suites him. The dialogue awarded to him is not particularly inspiring, although Reilly is a good enough actor to overcome such a shortcoming and find inspiration. Sarah Siverman, as Vaneloppe von Schweetz, is less annoying as the story evolves as she is during her first scene and in fact becomes genuinely likeable by the end. Jane Lynch is on par with her usual sarcastic self, Alan Tudyk is clearly having fun as the loopy King Candy. The best performance of the film might be Jack McBrayer as the bashful Felix.
At this stage, in 2012, it is difficult to gauge just how well realised the animation is in these big budget computer generated films. Sometimes the style will vary from one movie to the next, but one is hard pressed to argue that any of them simply does ‘not look good.’ Wreck-It Ralph is a simpler looking picture, with very round characters, but where the individuals look somewhat plain, or as competent cg reproductions of what they looked like in the original video game forms, the locations are phenomenal, with plenty of detail differentiating each locale and giving them a great sense of personality. One last little note is the decision to have the supporting cast of the Fix-It Felix game move around in blocky, jerky fashion, much like video game characters in the 16-bit era did. It is a neat touch, although one might question the logic considering that both Ralph and Felix move with the fluidity one expects from a state of the art animated film.
Wreck-It Ralph starts off slowly but thankfully picks up some steam as it moves along. Ultimately, the themes of the story are not given the proper arena to become fully fledged, a problem that is attributed to the writing, although there is enough fun to be had for the movie to earn a light recommendation.