By Matt Hawkins
Wreck-It-Ralph is, without question, one of the most highly anticipated video game movies ever produced. It had a shot at being the best one ever. The reasons are obvious and numerous.
For starters, it’s a product of Walt Disney Animation Studios, whose animation pedigree is without question. Then you have John Lasseter as executive producer. He helped to form Pixar, Disney’s only true competition and is now its chief creative officer. Together they have created offerings that put similar efforts from competing studios like Dreamworks Animation to shame.
In addition to Lasseter (whose list of credits includes Toy Story), you also have Rich Moore as director. He’s not exactly a household name, unless you’re a Simpsons and Futurama fanboy, since he oversaw some of their best episodes.
Next is the voice talent: the star of the show is John C. Reilly, beloved by serious critics and fans of lowbrow comedy alike who is supported by Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, and Alan Tudyk.
It is exceptionally rare to have so many powerful and talented forces behind a video game movie. And that’s before we address the very concept, which can be best described as “Toy Story, but with video games.” Clearly, Wreck-It-Ralph must be pure gold on every conceivable level, right?
Well, it’s certainly good. Excellent even. But it’s not necessarily perfect. Not because of any concrete stumbles. It had the chance to be brilliant, and unfortunately, chooses not to take those steps.
Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.
Wreck-It-Ralph is the antagonist of Fix-It Felix Jr, an old school arcade game that pays homage to the original Donkey Kong; Ralph terrorizes tenants of an apartment building by—what else?— wrecking it. And the player, as Fix-It Felix Jr, must fix the damage. The rules of the movie’s universe are established early on: everyone within the game is essentially an actor who is on call whenever someone puts a quarter into their machine.
The game resides in an arcade, where it’s been for many years now. It’s hung in there. When the arcade is closed for business, everyone relaxes and mingles about, much like real actors. The bulk of the movie takes place “behind the screen” and has Ralph interacting with other characters, often from other games. They all gather in a central hub, or sometimes they’ll hang out in other video game environments.
Almost everyone has a clearly defined role. The problem is that Ralph doesn’t like his. He’s grown tired of being the bad guy and wants to be a good one for once. Even though it’s just a role, virtually everyone assumes he’s a brutish jerk and treats him as such. The situation is exacerbated when he discovers that he was not invited to a party that is being thrown to honor Felix’s 30 years of service. He decides to crash the shindig, but in the nicest way possible. That plan backfires immediately.
Whenever the player in the real world is able to clear a level, Felix gets a medal. So Ralph comes to the realization that if he had his own medal, he would be deemed a hero and would no longer be viewed with such disdain. As a result, Ralph decides to sneak into another title called Hero’s Duty, a light gun game that borrows heavily from Gears of War. The thing is, he does this during business hours, which is a real no-no, and this causes a ripple effect of problems but also introduces him to Vanellope, a young girl character who is an outcast, because she’s glitched. As things go bad, his own game gets put out of service, which is basically the end of the world for its denizens. Felix goes looking for Ralph and we wind up with a small band of gaming characters on an adventure.
In the end, Wreck-It-Ralph is your classic Disney tale of characters discovering their true selves and overcoming adversity. That’s excellent for a family flick, something that Disney excels at. But many gamers are going to be approaching the movie with expectations for the depth of subtext that was found in Toy Story or the cartoon-character mash-up Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.
And it’s true: Wreck-It-Ralph offers a fascinating look behind the video game world, one that can only be orchestrated by someone as big and powerful as Disney. As in, only they could get so many powerful forces, including direct competitors, to share the stage each other. A large part of what made Roger Rabbit so memorable was the excitement from seeing Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny do a scene together. And while there are plenty of cameos in Wreck-It-Ralph, it doesn’t quite offer that “wow” moment that many are expecting.
Unfortunately, there really aren’t that many cameos. People expecting to be inundated with fan service will be disappointed. The movie’s advertising pushed really hard the notion that there would be famous characters all over the place, and that’s not the case. Ralph spends most of his time in three fictional game environments: his own and the other two that he crashes. Other characters get involved in the proceedings for sure, but purely to help things along. Heck, the most surprising thing is the over-abundance of real world junk food reference in the movie’s made-up game Sugar Rush. That’s where you get all the famous snack cameos. That and the inexplicable appearance of Skrillex, whom you REALLY have to look out for.
There’s also a certain degree of inconsistency to the movie’s universe, one that only the most critical and hardcore of gamers might pick up (that means you, fine readers of Kotaku). For the most part, Disney’s original game characters are intermingling with actual ones, and it generally works, but in other instances it doesn’t. Consider the very first scene, when Ralph is in a support group for other bad guys. It’s cool seeing M. Bison and Eggman in the same room. The problem is that they’re right next to someone who clearly is supposed to be Kano from Mortal Kombat but isn’t. It’s a bit jarring. Couldn’t the writers come up with another gag that wouldn’t need a MK-esque character?
There are plenty of things that the movies does right in exploring a world of game characters. The movie touches upon the politics of what it means to be a video game character, which is fascinating. Ever wonder what exactly your faceless character in certain first person shooter/light gun games looks like? It’s addressed here, and it’s frankly awesome.
The problem is that Wreck-It-Ralph just doesn’t go far enough to explore its territory or stretch beyond it. What made both Toy Story and Roger Rabbit magical was the interplay between their richly-defined fictional universes and their movies’ version of the real world. That’s not to say that the people are totally non-factors here, but they definitely do not play the role that it perhaps should have.
The animation is gorgeous, the writing is sharp, and the acting is mostly spot on. Wreck-It-Ralph is how it handles the subject matter with respect, which is appreciated. As anyone familiar with the genre of video game cinema can attest, one gets the impression that 99% of the time, the people behind the camera simply do not get what they’re talking about. Not here.
Wreck-It-Ralph is a superb family flick, but it is still a bit of a failure, sadly, because it chooses not to dip deep into the video game waters its treads. That’s a real shame, because Wreck-It-Ralph is such a golden opportunity that only an entity like Disney could orchestrate in the first place.