The moment I saw the titular character Wreck-It Ralph sitting with fellow arcade villains at a Bad-Guys Anonymous meeting I was sold. To see him sitting with Street Fighter II‘s Zangief, Bowser of Super Mario Bros. fame and a Kano doppelganger, well it was pretty much a videogame nerd’s fantasy. Okay, a real videogame nerd may have rather had Lara Croft and Chun-Li engaged in some hot avatar on avatar action, but this is a Disney film. No way they would sneak any sexual references in their movies. Or do they?
If it’s female avatars you desire you’ll have to settle for Sarah Silverman (nice) as a spritely young girl (darn) and Jane Lynch in army boots (there’s a joke in there somewhere) shouting out PG-sanitized insults as if she watched Full Metal Jacket one too many times.
Wreck-It Ralph does something that most studios wish they could accomplish: make a credible videogame movie that respects the material but also thinks outside the box. Which is funny because the movie isn’t based on a video game and while it thinks outside the box, it takes place inside of one – an arcade game that is. Sporting familiar arcade characters like those mentioned above plus some others I didn’t notice the first time through (like Nintendo’s Paperboy and Frogger) the movie’s concept meshes Toy Story (characters) and Tron (world).
When the arcade in an unnamed town closes for the day, the characters are allowed to roam around thanks to the bank of surge protectors that act as “Game Central Station” and transports the characters from one game to another. As long as the characters are back in their original games before the arcade opens who’s to know? One could overanalyze the concept and wonder if this is the norm for arcades around the world. We never get that far with the idea behind Wreck-It Ralph and that’s okay. It offers enough nostalgia triggers to evoke glee from newborns of the mid-‘70s and ‘80s who grew up feeding large joystick monoliths quarters all day long.
The story is simple and easy to digest, and revolves around a villain trying to find his inner hero. Wreck-It Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly) is the antagonist of an early ‘80s arcade game that bears a striking resemblance to Donkey Kong. Just like DK Ralph is all about causing wanton destruction to an apartment complex. It’s up to Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer) an obvious clone of Mario to fix it and save the day. The goal is fairly perfunctory. Felix repairs windows while dodging objects tossed by Ralph. They have been doing the same job (read: playing the same game) for thirty years. Remarkably, the game has managed to be a fixture of this arcade while others from the era have been replaced by first-person shooters, driving simulations and games with far better graphics.
Fed up with being the bad guy – who could blame him; he gets thrown off the roof with every loss – he decides to game jump and try his fortune at being a good guy for a change. Looking to achieve that brass ring, or in this case a gold medal, he tries being a first-person shooter in a game called Hero’s Duty. But once he gets the medal (by cheating no less), Ralph is inadvertently transported to Sugar Rush, a colorful racing game. It is there that he meets the obnoxious Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) who steals his medal so she can enter the race. Stuck between games Ralph runs the risk of seeing both Fix-It Felix and Sugar Rush get unplugged for good.
In an effort to make the film presentable for today’s audience expectant of dazzling computer-generated images that pop from all angles, the filmmakers forgo any attempt to mimic the style of 8-bit arcade games. Aside from the opening Walt Disney Animated Studios logo, a few quick arcade callbacks (anyone remember the root beer game Tapper?) and the closing credits, Wreck-It Ralph boasts graphics comparable to what you would find on next generation consoles like the PS3 and Xbox 360.
In addition to cameos from Sonic the Hedgehog, Qbert, and a gameless Dig Dug, the film also incorporates in-jokes, clever product tie-ins, sound effects and references that older videogamers can easily spot. This includes the famed Konami Code of Contra fame. Had the filmmakers included a character named “Justin Bailey” (a famous code from Metroid) well that would have been another moment of geek nirvana.
Even with arcade-gaming callbacks, those unfamiliar with the references can easily enjoy Wreck-It Ralph. Like any Disney movie the film has a similar structure and narrative. Oftentimes it involves the pairing of two unlikely characters that provide the relationship core. This time it is Ralph and Vanellope.
One has to wonder if Wreck-It Ralph will cause a resurgence in dropping quarters at the arcade. I’d be remissed if I didn’t want to upon stepping out of the theater. Even better would be a real Fix-It Felix game. I’m sure Billy Madison would like to play since he considers Donkey Kong to be the best video game ever.
2012 has been a very good year for animation, and Wreck-It Ralph may just be the most effective one thus far. With competition that includes two stellar stop-motion offerings, Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie and Laika’s ParaNorman, Ralph combines the best of antiquated technology with newfangled graphics and an impeccable vocal cast.
*Note: If you do see Wreck-It Ralph in theaters arrive early so you can see a wonderful animated short called Paperman. A black-and-white short that blends traditional, hand-drawn animation with computer animation, the film is about serendipity revolving around a man and woman who share a glance on a train platform. Highlighted by Christophe Beck’s music score, this romantic fable is far better than most romantic comedies that get major theatrical releases.
Director: Rich Moore
Writer: Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee
Notable Cast: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk