Disney has long been a powerhouse in the realms of Hollywood. In its animation heyday, no one could top Disney’s brilliant blend of gorgeous animation, heart-warming storytelling, and great musical numbers. Eventually, though, Pixar blasted onto the scene with the first computer-generated animation effort, Toy Story. Soon, Pixar’s films became the gold standard for animation and other studios scrambled to put together their own CG animated films. None of them were able to match Pixar, however, and Disney’s own CG animated films stumbled out of the gate as they tried to play catch-up. A lot has changed in just a few years: Disney now owns Pixar, Marvel, and, most recently, LucasFilm (and the rights to the entire Star Wars franchise). From the outside, it just looks like Disney is trying to brute force their way into an evolved movie industry, but that wouldn’t be giving them enough credit. Disney’s own Walt Disney Animation Studios has picked up its game, producing the brilliant return-to-form CG animated film Tangled just two years ago. With Tangled, Disney has been cast back into the animation limelight as fans and newcomers alike wait and see if they can reproduce the magic in their next CG animated film. That film has finally arrived in the form of Wreck-It Ralph, and it does not disappoint.
Titular arcade game villain Ralph has been wrecking things inside an arcade game for 30 years now, only to get tossed into the mud while his heroic counterpart, Fix-It Felix, Jr., gets all the praise, love, and admiration of their non-player character neighbors. Ralph is getting tired of being seen as the villain, because in reality he’s just a really nice guy. After having a mid-life crisis of sorts, Ralph decides he no longer wants to be a villain and sets out to prove his worth as a hero by acquiring that one thing that makes heroes in the world of video games: a medal. With this goal in mind, Ralph ditches his own arcade game and begins “game-hopping” to the worlds of the other games in the arcade. Little does he know that his desire to prove that he is more than just the guy who wrecks things will have far greater repercussions than he could have imagined.
Wreck-It Ralph is easily one of the most unique film efforts I have ever seen. By building a living, breathing video game universe in which the characters actually exist and have lives outside of their games, director Rich Moore and writers Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston have found a rich gold mine of storytelling opportunities. The director and writers display a deep respect for video games, setting up references and knowingly winking at older and younger gamers alike. The contrast between the game worlds is sharp and very defined; the action heavy world of Hero’s Duty evokes obvious Gears of War and Call of Duty (and possibly even Starship Troopers) vibes. Meanwhile, the land of Sugar Rush mashes together Mario Kart and board game Candyland quite effectively. Ralph and Felix’s homegame of Fix-It Felix, Jr. also has a decidedly distinct, retro vibe. The way that Moore handles each of the worlds and their various video game tropes is excellent, and both gamers and non-gamers in the audience will appreciate the extreme attention to detail that brings the characters and worlds to life.
What also helps bring the movie to life is the all around excellent voice work. John C. Reilly brings pathos to a character many perceive to be a “villain.” His Ralph is just looking for his place in the world, and Reilly does a good job of helping us connect emotionally with the character while also digging into his comedy background to produce some fun laughs as the character. Meanwhile, Sarah Silverman plays well off of Reilly as the hyperactive Vanellope von Schweetz. Silverman’s characterization is both strong and difficult not to “root for” by the end of the film. Silverman portrays Vanellope as tough but vulnerable, and her character’s plight serves as a good parallel to that of Ralph’s. Jack McBrayer voices Fix-It Felix, Jr. and does a very good job giving off a retro hero-character type of vibe. Some of Felix’s best scenes are when he’s fixating on Sergeant Calhoun, the lead character of Hero’s Duty. Jane Lynch gave one of my favorite performances as Calhoun, satirizing hammy military game dialogue and modern shooters in general. Finally, Alan Tudyk (of Firefly and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil fame) gave a very amusing performance as King Candy, the ruler of Sugar Rush. Tudyk plays King Candy as an over-the-top Mad Hatter type who knows how to effectively rule his subordinates, one of whom is Sour Bill. Sour Bill is King Candy’s acting right hand … candy … and is voiced by none other than Moore himself. Moore voices Sour Bill as a droll, humorously apathetic servant and definitely earned a few laughs himself.
Lee and Johnston have definitely put together a good script here. They make so many references to video games that the movie practically begs to be re-watched, just so you can catch all of the game-related dialogue and find all of the characters hiding in the background; I actually even managed to spot what looked like Skrillex in one of the scenes. The writers also seem to have a good understanding of games in general, playing with game genre tropes effectively in each world. Humor-wise, Wreck-It Ralph weaves together a lot of video game humor, poking fun at character stereotypes and general gaming tropes.
The film was also pretty adept in its utilization of puns. These puns induced groans and were very amusing, two factors that make for great puns in my opinion. King Candy was generally the one making use of the puns, and his character was all the more memorable because of it. Beyond the great video game references and puns, Wreck-It Ralph is also pretty thematically weighty. The core theme is about discovering who you are and where you belong in the world, and the film and voice actors play to this extremely well.
Overall, the script was definitely good, but I will say that I still had a few problems with it. The fact that Sugar Rush was where most of movie was set became very tedious; after tantalizing the insane possibilities of this film to explore a wide variety of game worlds, to spend most of the time in a candy themed kart-racer game was more than a little disappointing. My other primary problem with the writing (that may also tie back to the fact that they spent most of the movie in Sugar Rush) was the insane amount of product placement. The Oreo joke was funny, but I rolled my eyes at the “Nesquik Sand,” Diet Coke, and Mentos mountain.
In terms of its animation, Wreck-It Ralph is a beautifully rendered film. What grabbed me in particular was the wide color palette utilized throughout the film. This allowed Moore to be really artistic in terms of each world, giving them a unique set of colors and even shapes; the more retro games had a lot of hard lines and edges to go with the 8-bit nature of old graphics. The action set pieces were extremely well done as well; the Hero’s Duty scenes clipped along at a good pace and the action here evoked the chaotic nature of modern shooters without being visually messy and difficult to follow. The racing scenes in Sugar Rush were also a joy to watch, providing a veritable visual feast and I couldn’t help but grin stupidly at the eye candy. That was the case for most of the film, really. Wreck-It Ralph was just that good to look at. To conclude my thoughts on the animation, I’ll just say that I really enjoyed the stilted movements of the non-player characters in the Fix-It Felix, Jr. game. Every time they moved in that distinctive 8-bit way, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Kudos to the director and animators for including details like this into the movie.
Wreck-It Ralph is a great animated film. It represents Walt Disney Animation Studios near the very top of their game, and possibly even a powerful new franchise to be added to their pantheon of films. Non-gamers will like this movie, but if you’re a gamer you will absolutely love this movie. This was definitely a film made by gamers, for gamers. That being said, it isn’t perfect and I’d have to say I still think Tangled is the better film, but Ralph is so close to it that I’m sure if there is a sequel they will definitely knock it out of the park. Still, I’m definitely going to watch this movie again at some point; there’s a lot going on in the background and I’m sure I missed some things. I also just want to see if I can spot Skrillex again … what is he even doing in this movie?!