Yes, I know I’m late covering this one. Blame it on unexpected arthouse releases, some miscalculated choices of what to review first, and the general dictates of my life outside the blog. In any case, I was determined to review the one film from the 11/02/12 weekend that didn’t suck, and I finally got around to it. If you got to enjoy Wreck-It Ralph before I did, good for you. If you haven’t enjoyed it yet, I can almost certainly promise that you won’t regret watching it.
First thing’s first: This is a Pixar film about artificial objects possessing secret lives of their own. Completely unexplored territory for a Pixar film, I know. More specifically, it’s the story of a bad guy who decides that he’s sick of being a villain and wants to try his hand at being a good guy for a change. At this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this premise was a stain on Pixar’s reputation for creativity, especially since Dreamworks did something similar with Megamind not too long ago. But hear me out.
(CORRECTION: I’ve since been informed that this film was made by Disney Animation Studios and not by Pixar. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one.)
Our film is set in Litwak’s Arcade, which features video games from all genres and generations of coin-op entertainment. After hours, the characters of these games are free to interact with each other, often traveling from one machine to another through the electrical wiring. Yet even when the humans aren’t watching, the games and their characters are all heavily limited by rules.
Anything out of the ordinary that happens — especially while the arcade is open — might be perceived as a glitch. In turn, it creates the risk that a machine might be deemed out of order and unplugged. Any characters stuck outside the game when that happens would be left homeless, and any characters still in the game would effectively be good as dead. Furthermore, there’s also the fact that as humans, we’re effectively gods to them. We’re the ones who made the characters as they are, so to go against their programming would be to go against us. Luckily, the movie doesn’t go too far down this theological path. The important thing is that as far as video game characters are concerned, conformity is paramount.
Thus we have the inner crisis of Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), the villain of a game called “Fix-It Felix Jr.” As Ralph so eloquently puts it, he has the misfortune to be great at destroying things in a game that’s about building things. As such, Felix (the game’s eponymous hero, voiced by Jack McBrayer) gets a medal at the end of every game while Ralph gets tossed off a tall apartment building into a mud puddle. The game is coming up on its 30th anniversary, and that’s a lot of time to be doing the same thing over and over again without any appreciation to show for it.
That’s really what it comes down to with Ralph: Appreciation. He’d be perfectly happy to keep doing this job, except that the apartment’s residents treat the guy like a monster. They don’t want anything to do with Ralph, since… well, he’s the villain. The result is a fascinating hypocrisy: The characters shun Ralph because they’re the victims, he’s the bad guy, and that’s the iron law of their programming. Yet for how concerned these characters are with the (for lack of a better phrase) “natural” order of things, they take the guy for granted, failing to realize just how important Ralph is to that order until it’s too late.
As for Felix, you might expect him to be a total jerk, as is usually the case with these role-reversal premises. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Felix is a very compassionate, very earnest, very nice guy. He’s a total Boy Scout. That said, it’s implied that the only reason he’s a hero is the same reason why Ralph is a villain. There’s only one brief scene to imply it, but there’s definitely a sense that if things had been programmed differently or if the apartment residents weren’t so paranoid about the rules, Felix and Ralph could be good friends. They’re already close colleagues who’ve spent three decades working together for the machine’s best interests, in point of fact, it’s just that everyone is too short-sighted to realize it.
So Ralph goes game-hopping, out to find proof that someone with Ralph’s unique skill set can be recognized as a hero. He eventually ends up in “Hero’s Duty,” a first-person light gun shooter in which space marines fight against alien insects called “cybugs.” At this point, you might be wondering where the danger is to Ralph. After all, video game characters like him are known for dying and respawning all the time, right? Well, as Sonic helpfully informs us (played by Roger Craig Smith, the same guy who’s been voicing Sonic for two years, I might add), video game characters are only safe inside their native games. As soon as they cross the wires, dead is dead. Of course, this leaves the question of what happens when two different characters from two different games fuse into one, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Anyway, Ralph stays in “Hero’s Duty” long enough to cheat his way toward a medal. After that, a series of mishaps sends Ralph through the wires and into a racing game called “Sugar Rush,” where the bulk of the story takes place. This game is ruled by King Candy (Alan Tudyk, of all people), who takes Felix’s place as the role-reversed “hero who’s actually a villain.” We’ll get back to him later. Right now, it’s enough to say that Ralph has to find his medal and get home before his absence causes “Fix-It Felix Jr.” to get unplugged.
At this point, let’s take a moment to think about what we’ve got. Of the three games in this story, one’s a platformer from the early ’80s, one’s a ’90s-era kart racer, and the other is a 21st century FPS. These games have absolutely nothing in common, so of course they’re all going to play by completely different sets of rules. Throw in the rules that are universal to the arcade (characters who die outside their games stay dead, for example) and that’s four different sets of rules in effect all at once. That’s a lot to keep track of for one movie, and the film doesn’t always succeed at juggling them all without coming off as contrived. For example, we learn later on that video game glitches can’t leave their games. Viruses can apparently travel between games, but glitches can’t. I couldn’t think of a single reason why not, save only for dramatic convenience.
Also, without giving too much away, we eventually see a character go into a game’s code and change it. This raises way too many questions. For starters, is it just this one character who can go in and change a video game’s code? If so, then why? If not, then why not? Moreover, if this sort of thing is possible, then why couldn’t the characters use this to solve any problem or glitch that comes along? That isn’t even getting started on the real-world doomsday scenario called the “technological singularity,” otherwise known as the whole reason why programs that can write or alter computer code without human assistance is a REALLY FUCKING BAD IDEA.
Before moving on to comment on the film’s humor, I feel compelled to disclose my own history with video games. Put briefly, I had an NES in my very early childhood and a Genesis in my grade school years. The bulk of my video game memories are of the Nintendo 64, primarily with such games as Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, and pretty much every game Rare made for the system. I don’t think I could count the times I played Star Fox 64, GoldenEye, and Mario Kart on multiplayer with my friends and cousins. After that, I got a GameCube before switching to PS2. I then played Wii through college before realizing that blogging about movies was a much cheaper and more productive hobby. Still, I’ve been known to spend some time at Ground Kontrol, and I’m always up for a game of Dance Dance Revolution.
Though I wouldn’t pretend to know about every single video game reference in this movie (even if I was an obsessive gamer, that would probably take two or three viewings at least), I still managed to catch a lot of the inside jokes. And they were brilliantly done. To wit, anyone who sees the “Bad Guys Anonymous” meeting at the start of the film might only see a zombie, but I know enough about light gun arcade games to know exactly where that zombie came from.
Unfortunately, as great as the video game jokes and references are, Pixar is obliged to be a kid-friendly company. As such, there had to be some humor for those too young to know who Pitfall Harry is. This is how we wound up with several moments of juvenile humor, though most of them were more annoying than anything else. Mercifully, the film also included a few pop culture references which will certainly be much more enjoyable for non-gamers.
Mostly, however, the film resorts to candy humor. Because the vast majority of this film takes place in “Sugar Rush,” the puns and jokes about sweets are absolutely everywhere, and I’ll admit that quite a few of them successfully earned a few laughs. That said, there were several times when the movie felt less like a love letter to retro gaming and more like that long-rumored film adaptation of Candy Land. I know it’s a video game about candy, so there’s naturally going to be a lot of sweet humor involved, but a line has to be drawn somewhere. And personally, when the climax is resolved by totally contrived means that have nothing to do with video games and everything to do with candy, that’s where I draw the line.
This brings me to another complaint about the film: It really didn’t do a good job of balancing the games this film is set in. So much of the film revolves around “Sugar Rush” that the other two games are left by the wayside. Granted, “Fix-It Felix Jr.” is a very simple game that’s only limited to one apartment complex, so its relative lack of screentime is somewhat understandable. Even so, I was very intrigued by the character of Felix himself. I sincerely wish the film had spent more time exploring his relationship with Ralph and what he thinks about being the hero of his game. Instead, most of Felix’s screen time is devoted toward his odd coupling with Sgt. Calhoun (Jane Lynch), which is admittedly a very funny romance arc.
Speaking of which, “Hero’s Duty” really got the shaft. That game contributed absolutely nothing except for Calhoun, a MacGuffin for our protagonist, and a threat that laid dormant — doing absolutely nothing — until it came time for the climax. It’s a damn shame that more wasn’t done with this setting, especially since it probably had the biggest in-game universe of the three to explore.
Getting back to “Sugar Rush,” the time has finally come to address the film’s wild card: Vanellope von Schweetz, voiced by Sarah Silverman. The thing to know about Vanellope is that she’s a glitch, which means that putting her in the hands of a player would immediately put the whole game at risk. As such, she’s shunned by every racer in “Sugar Rush” and no one will let her anywhere near a go-kart. However, the player’s roster of available drivers changes every day, and the characters race themselves to see who will make the next day’s roster. The catch is that admission to the race costs a gold coin. So Vanellope steals Ralph’s medal and uses it as her admission fee, with the promise of getting it back if she wins.
As a direct result, Ralph’s medal (which, remember, is his proof to the people of “Fix-It Felix” that he can do good) is now tied directly to Vanellope’s performance in the race. His story effectively becomes her story. In fact, the more we come to learn about Vanellope, the more we find that her secrets, backstory, and character arc are just as detailed as those of Ralph, if not more so.
I realize what the filmmakers were trying to do with Vanellope, and they weren’t completely unsuccessful. The villain and the glitch find a lot of common ground in their social statuses, and they bring out a lot in each other. They have plenty of sincerely great moments together. On the other hand, I still think that Vanellope’s story became far too prominent for the movie’s own good. It sidelines the title character in his own film. Also, it’s worth remembering that because she’s a glitch, Vanellope can’t leave her game (for whatever reason). We’re effectively stuck with a character who can’t travel between games, in a movie that’s all about video game characters traveling between games. The whole film is built around the concept of several different video games colliding, and focusing so much on Vanellope’s story delays the moment when we really see that concept delivered.
Oh, and Silverman’s performance got very annoying very quickly, which certainly didn’t help matters.
Anyway, I’ve harped on long enough about those things I didn’t like. I’d finally like to address those things I enjoyed about the movie, and believe me, the good things in this movie certainly outnumber the bad.
To start with, the visuals are phenomenal. I absolutely loved how the different game worlds all had their own unique look and feel to them. Additionally, huge kudos are due to the team at Pixar for bringing so many video game icons to such vivid life. When Q*Bert showed up onscreen, for example, it didn’t look or feel like some Pixar artist’s representation of Q*Bert. That was fucking Q*Bert.
Forgive the comparison, I know a million others have already made it, but think back to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? When you saw Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse falling out of the sky, did that feel like some artist’s imitation of those classic characters, or did it feel like Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse their own selves had come over to film that cameo? Same deal.
By a similar token, the action scenes in this film were all spectacular. As much as I lament the overwhelming portion of screen time that went to “Sugar Rush,” I must admit that the car chase scenes looked wonderful. A little evocative of Speed Racer, I grant you, but that’s hardly a bad thing. Additionally, though barely any time was spent in “Hero’s Duty,” that brief gunfight with the cybugs was spectacularly done.
The humor helps a lot as well. Though Silverman’s obnoxious voice acting killed her character’s jokes for me, John C. Reilly, Jane Lynch, and Jack McBrayer were all more than funny enough to make up for it. That isn’t even getting started on Alan Tudyk. Seriously, the guy buried himself so much into this goofy villainous role that I almost spit-taked my soda when I found out it was him on the mic.
A lot of praise must also go to Henry Jackman, who composed a brilliant score for this picture. The music to this film blended together so many different styles of music, and they all worked wonders. His use of electronica was especially good. Also, as a DDR fanatic and a former anime fan, I confess I’ve always had a guilty soft spot for sugary J-Pop. It’s an itch that AKB48′s theme song for “Sugar Rush” did a great job of scratching.
(Side note: Now I’m left wondering what Anamanaguchi might have done with this gig. I’m sure they’d have killed it. Oh, well.)
Far more importantly, this movie shows a vibrant beating heart. The film’s love for retro gaming is absolutely sincere, and the message about accepting our perceived flaws is delivered without getting overly preachy or contrived about it. It also helps that the characters have very real, very understandable fears of nonconformity. This may well be the one time in all of past, present, or fiction when accepting someone who’s different could seriously and literally spell doom for an entire community. There are serious stakes at play here, which adds a great deal of depth and urgency for the character developments of Ralph and Vanellope.
Last but not least, these characters were just plain fun to watch. Ralph’s inner crisis may not have been anything new, but it was presented in some very interesting ways. I loved watching the character find new ways of putting his abilities to use, either by accident (proving he’s destructive by nature) or for good (proving that he’s not a complete monster). Felix was also a lot of fun to watch, mostly because of all the clever ways the film utilizes his fixing abilities.
The plot has a great deal of balancing problems and contrivances, but Wreck-It Ralph was still a good time. From the visuals to the action to the music to the loving video game references, the presentation of this film is absolutely gleaming with polish. I don’t know if it’s worth a 3D ticket, but it’s definitely worth a look.
All told, I sincerely hope that this film gets a franchise. Litwak’s is clearly a big arcade with a lot of other games to explore, and a lot of video game references left to make. There are a lot of adventures for Ralph and co. to potentially go on, and the sky is the limit for this franchise. It’d be a shame to let so many great opportunities go to waste.