Movie Review: Wreck-It Ralph
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. When I applied for this gig here at GFBR, there were two openings. One for a video games writer, and one for movies. I couldn’t decide, so I submitted for both. I was politely told that I had to choose between the two sections. This was a very difficult decision for me, I’m pretty passionate about video games, but my heart is in film. (Not to mention, games writing can be damn hard! Props to our gaming crew for their great coverage!) I looked at my game collection and then at my film collection. Both were expansive, but my prior experience with film writing led me to choose that path. It was a tough choice, but I’m happy with it. And after seeing Disney Animation’s latest film, Wreck-It Ralph, I’m incredibly glad with my choice. Why? Well, Wreck-It Ralph melds a couple of my favorite things: gaming, Disney, incredible animation–and best of all, it’s packaged in a film that is just plain fun to experience. I’m smitten with Wreck-It Ralph, and I’m glad that I’m getting the chance to write this film review, because I want the world to know how great this film is.
Wreck-It Ralph takes place inside Litwak’s Arcade. During the arcade’s open hours it’s a normal arcade, but at night the characters in the video games can take a break from their “day job” of being controlled by gamers visiting the arcade and visit other cabinets or a central common area. Think of it like a mix of Toy Story and Tron’s Game Grid. The titular Ralph (voiced to perfection by my favorite actor, John C. Reilly) is the villain of the Donkey Kong knock-off Fix-It Felix Jr. (who is voiced by 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer). As Ralph explains to his villain support group, he’s a bad guy but sometimes he really wishes to be a hero. The other villains are appalled by this line of thinking, but Ralph just can’t give this dream up. When the inhabitants of Fix-It Felix Jr. throw a 30th anniversary party for their game, Ralph is upset that he isn’t invited. This sets in motion a chain of events that leads Ralph on a quest to become a hero, and for Ralph to learn what that really means.
Wreck-It Ralph is not a film that could have been done at any other time in Disney’s history (though it has been in production in one form or another since the ’80s). There’s a legitimately great story in this film outside of the video game references, but had Disney tried this sort of film in the ’90s or even the early Aughts, it probably wouldn’t have worked. However, with Pixar’s John Lasseter executive producing, and the impeccable direction of Simpsons/Futurama vet Rich Moore, there’s an incredible amount of reverence to the material. Sometimes in popular media there is a habit of going for the low hanging fruit of video game jokes or presentation. You’ve seen it in movies before when an actor is supposed to be playing a game but is instead flailing around the controller like a mad man. Here, Moore treats everything sancrosanctly: Wreck-It Ralph isn’t here to make fun of games, it’s here to revere them and then poke fun at them. For example, Q*Bert and the residents of his game cabinent live in the game center following their game being decommisioned. They live on the street begging for kindness from other people. But, Q*Bert doesn’t speak English–instead he speaks the gibberish-symbol language from the original game, and people who speak to him need to speak this Q*Bert-ese as well. That’s just a tiny, tiny example of the references and loving care that went into these references. There are literally hundreds of these jokes (all the way up to the end of the credits, actually) and if you’re a gamer you’ll adore what Wreck-It Ralph has to say.
But the script from Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee isn’t just a bunch of clever gaming references. If it were, it would be a fairly shallow film. No, the script is more than that. With Ralph’s quest and eventual redemption/acceptance, the script is smart and packed with several philosophical ponderings. The things Wreck-It Ralph has to say about a person’s place in the world, and accepting who you are, make this film more than just a cute video game inspired romp. These game characters are trapped in an unending cycle. Sure, they can leave their game, but to leave is to risk death as there are no extra lives outside their own cabinet. These characters are literally born into this servitude and have no choice over their future. They are constantly told to do their job, and if the job involves being thrown off a building hundreds of times a day and living in a garbage heap (both sadly true for Ralph), well, so be it. But, Ralph aspires to be more. He doesn’t quite understand what being a hero is all about, but the script strongly allows him to learn, change, and grow.
Disney Animation’s computer animated films have evolved over the years, and they certainly look fine. Make no mistake, though, these movies have never rivaled Pixar in terms of sheer visual fidelity. The same is true here. Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t match Pixar’s best when it’s straight CG animation, but it does have some visual tricks that make it look incredible. Whenever the film shows 2D sprites, it looks phenomenal. You can see the pixels, and there’s a wonderful looking light effect that makes the sprites really pop on the screen. But, my favorite trick of the film is the dropped animation frames on some of the ancillary video game characters. Essentially what this means is that these characters still move like 2D sprites with a definitive number of frames to their animation despite being rendered in 3D models. It’s a cute visual gag, but it looks great on screen.
The voice acting is another highlight of the film. I had initially worried about the film when voice casting started after production had begun when usually the opposite is true. Fear not, Reilly provides the perfect mixture of sad sack moroseness, anger, and occasional jubilation. I can’t imagine another person in this role, frankly. Sarah Silverman’s Vanellope von Schweetz, a young and precocious character in the Sugar Rush cart-racing game, is well acted, and tremendously endearing by the end of the film. Alan Tudyk’s King Candy is phenomenal because…well, I had no clue it was Alan Tudyk! King Candy is played both visually and aurally like the Mad Hatter from Disney’s version of Alice in Wonderland, and Tudyk’s work is incredible. McBrayer plays Felix like most other characters he’s played in the past, forthright, kind, and homey. Jane Lynch’s turn as the hard edged FPS character, Calhoun, is funny, but her role isn’t really the focus.
And I haven’t even mentioned the short that plays before the feature. I’ll not say much, because I’d hate to spoil it, but the Paperman short is beautiful. A combination of CG and traditional animation with 1950s style designs, Paperman is a tremendous acheivement that you simply must see if you enjoy animation.
Look, there aren’t many instances when I would say that Disney Animation has outclassed Pixar at their own game, but it’s absolutely true in this case. Brave wasn’t a bad movie, but it also was a good movie. Wreck-It Ralph is a great movie. If you’re not a gamer, don’t let the video game trappings scare you away; Wreck-It Ralph is a moving, funny, heartfelt story that will leave you with a smile on your face. I know it’s not a competition between Disney Animation and Pixar, they are both part of the House of Mouse after all. But Wreck-It Ralph outclasses Pixar’s last two effort by a country mile. I don’t know if I’ve made it clear enough, but Wreck-It Ralph is a great film that you simply must see. GG Disney Animation, GG.