With a conceit that gives the writers plenty to play with and an impressive voice cast, Disney’s latest has something for all ages
Directed by: RICH MOORE
Starring: JOHN C REILLY, SARAH SILVERMAN, JACK MCBRAYER, JANE LYNCH, ALAN TUDYK
While Pixar’s reputation for perfection has been tarnished of late by the mixed reception for the endearingly scrappy Brave and the outright drubbing dished out to the lamentable Cars 2, the filmmakers over at Pixar’s Mouse House cohorts Disney Animation have managed to come up with their best film in eons. Wreck-It Ralph – a charming CG-animated adventure about a video game character who goes rogue – may wear the influence of Pixar’s classic work prominently on its storytelling sleeve, but, perhaps unburdened by weight of expectation that now greets each new Pixar release, it manages to feel imaginatively and entertainingly anarchic.
That’s partly down to a well-thought-through concept. Set in the world of arcade games, it does a very Toy Story thing by imagining what might happen if the characters in those games had interior lives of their own that caused them to fret over their purpose in life. In the case of the lumbering Wreck-It Ralph (John C Reilly), the Donkey Kong-esque “bad guy” in a vintage video game called Fix-it Felix Jr, 30 thankless years spent trying to tear down a block of flats while his game’s eponymous hero (Jack McBrayer) counteracts his wrecking-ball tendencies have taken their toll. He’s tired: tired of being the bad guy, tired of being treated as a pariah, tired of being defined solely by his destructive tendencies.
In a nice early touch, the film shows Ralph unloading these feelings in a support group called Bad Guys Anon (Motto: “I may be a bad guy but I’m not a bad guy”) that’s run by the ghosts from Pac-Man. Shortly thereafter, we see him drowning his sorrows in the saloon bar of the early arcade game Tapper. Both sequences will likely trigger Proustian flashbacks for those old enough to have been reared on the very early days of gaming, but they’re also a neat way of introducing us to the fact any game character in the film can visit any other game in the arcade – an ingenious conceit that allows director Rich Moore and his co-writers Jim Reardon, Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee to expand the parameters of the Ralph’s world in fascinating ways.
The plot kicker comes when Ralph, determined to prove his worth as a hero, sneaks into another game in an effort to win some validation by securing a medal. Though technically a breach of gaming protocol (all characters are supposed to be back in their original games when the arcade opens each day), he gives in to his bad guy instincts and does it anyway, winding up in a violent, high-definition first person shooter game called Hero’s Duty (an amusing nod to blockbuster video games such as Call of Duty and Halo). There, his instinctual appetite for destruction enables him to win, but just as quickly results in him being catapulted into yet another game: an anime-influenced racing simulator called Sugar Rush in which he’s forced to pair up with a snarky, preteen sprite-of-a-girl called Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman).
Her status as a game glitch that threatens the stability of Sugar Rush immediately marks her out as a kindred spirit to Ralph’s own unstable nature – so it hardly needs to be said that by teaming up they’ll inevitably bring out the best in each other. Indeed, like just about every other family film, Wreck-it Ralph is full of characters that have to learn to be true to themselves. Unlike every other family film, however, it ups the stakes considerably for all involved so that it’s impossible not to feel invested in them. Early on, for instance, we discover – via a Sonic the Hedgehog public service announcement – that if a character dies in another game, they can’t regenerate. It’s a surprisingly dark plot point, but one that taps into the interactive appeal of gaming by making us acutely aware of all the pitfalls awaiting the characters.
The film benefits too from supporting characters with unusually rich back-stories (the tough-talking, Jane Lynch-voiced leader of Hero’s Duty is particularly inspired). And it also boasts a pleasing variety of animation styles that both reflect the different eras of gaming and cleverly delineate the different perceptions those playing the games and those inside the games have of the action. The latter helps make this a film for all ages rather than just another nostalgia fest for thirtysomethings who get all the references to Q*bert and Street Fighter. Nevertheless, the very fact that the film has any retro appeal is a testament to the oft-dismissed joys of gaming. With their questing storylines, problem-solving game-play and interactive characters, videogames can be just as valid and enriching a pastime as anything else. Wreck-it Ralph understands that and embraces it in a way that not only pays tribute to gaming culture, but also uses it to enhance its own appeal as a film.