Wreck-It Ralph: More than just a nostalgia trip

As a huge and lifelong video game nerd forged in the days of the Atari 2600 and ubiquitous mall arcades, Wreck-It Ralph is, even more so than other animated films, targeted more or less directly at me.  Featuring cameos by characters straight out of real-life games from Q*Bert to Street Fighter, it’s more or less the movie concept that would have topped my wishlist around junior high.  Unfortunately a lifetime of gaming has planted me squarely in a demographic targeted primarily by Doritos and Mountain Dew, so I was slightly skeptical of pandering.  Worst case scenario, it would have been 90 minutes of being nudged sharply by pop culture references until my very understanding of those references culminated in terrible shame.  As it turns out, I didn’t have anything to worry about-this one is Disney, not DreamWorks.

The eponymous Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the villain of a classic game invented for the film, entitled Fix-It Felix Jr.  In something like a hybrid of Rampage and Donkey Kong, Wreck-It Ralph does his best to destroy an apartment building, after which Fix-It Felix (voiced by 30 Rock‘s Jack McBrayer)  arrives on the scene to repair the damage.  Felix is awarded with a medal for his good deeds, while Ralph is tossed off the top of the building and doomed to spend his off-hours living alone in a garbage dump.  Ralph attends a support group for villains occupied by such iconic digital adversaries as Bowser, Dr. Robotnik, Zangief, and M. Bison, who all insist that being a villain is a noble calling (somebody has to do it, right?).  But Ralph wants more–he want’s a hero’s medal, and the prestige and acceptance that goes along with it.

The bait for this movie might be the inclusion of a wide variety of recognizable video game characters, but I assure you that Disney didn’t slack off in the least when it came to creating their own unique additions to the lineup.  Besides Ralph and Felix, the cast includes Sergeant Calhoun (voice of Jane Lynch), star of the futuristic first-person shooter Hero’s Duty, and Vanellope von Schweetz  (voice of Sarah Silverman), a glitchy character found in the cutesy anime-inspired racing game Sugar Rush.  With the noticeable exception of Ralph himself, all of these characters seem to be modeled around their voice actors (especially when it comes to facial expressions), and there’s definitely dialogue inspired by their other work.  Still though, they feel like solid and well-rounded Disney characters.  Maybe not quite on par with Pixar standards, but the emotion and motivation is definitely there, and none of them are simply one-note stand-ins.

There will never come a time when I don’t miss Disney’s traditional feature animation, which at its best rivaled any 2-D animation anywhere in the world.  But I have to admit that their 3-D work is getting better, and there were times in Wreck-It Ralph, particularly with the Sgt. Calhoun character, that I could feel the old ways creeping in.  Much of the problem with the switch to CGI for nearly all feature animation is the fact that character emotions have been reduced to lines of code, and the temptation of reuse is strong.  Characters in many animated films are no longer the domain of the artists, and are solely the product of whatever celebrity is voicing them.  Pixar alone has avoided that trap entirely, but this film is a strong example of Disney following suit.  It’s still not as interesting or real to me as cel animation, but at least shows ties to that era.

If this film has one noticeable misstep, its the occasional use of pop songs instead of just letting the composer do his job.  There’s a Rihanna track over the climactic montage, and it jolted me right out of the story.  It’s not as bad as most DreamWorks movies, which sometimes seem to be built entirely around catchy pop soundtracks, but it’s bad enough and it’d be great if Disney stopped doing it.  I’m not the biggest Randy Newman fan in the world, but if Toy Story had a sudden departure from his musical accompaniment into, say, a chronologically appropriate Hootie and the Blowfish track, the film’s timelessness would have been destroyed on the spot.  Just something to think about.  On the musical plus side, the credits roll with a track made just for this movie by Buckner and Garcia, who had probably the only successful video game themed pop hit in existence with 1982’s “Pac-Man Fever”.  Another weird bit is the fact that the villain of the story, King Candy, is voiced by Firefly‘s Alan Tudyk, pulling off a nearly dead-on impression of Ed Wynn, vaudeville comedian and voice of the Mad Hatter in Disney’s own 1951 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.  It’s not bad, but I sort of miss legitimate voice actors getting work.  I love Alan Tudyk, but if you’re going to hire an actor based on their ability to do an impression of a comedian born in the late 1800’s, maybe it’s time to start giving work back to voice actors?

All that aside though, Wreck-It Ralph is a legitimately great animated feature.  It’s a great story even if you’re not into classic video games, and if you are there’s a ton of stuff to be on the lookout for, like a bit of barely noticeable graffiti reading  “Sheng Long Was Here”.  That’s definitely a cue that the people responsible for bringing this film to life have done their homework, and are in no way pandering to a demographic.  There’s also the fact that the owner of the arcade in the film (voiced by Ed O’Neill), is clearly based on Walter Day, the real-life pre-crash video game icon responsible for the legendary Twin Galaxies Arcade.  Another great bonus is the short preceding the main feature, entitled Paperman.  It’s black and white, devoid of spoken dialogue, and is probably one of the most touching bits of animation I’ve seen in a long time, as well as a great homage to the short films of the silent era.  Go check it out, this is definitely something worth getting to the theater for.

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About Ryan Searles

I like watching movies, and then talking about those movies. Sometimes I write things about them, which you should read. Other interests include boxed wine, video games, the works of Harlan Ellison and HG Wells, and being a general curmudgeon.

Posted on November 12, 2012, in Movies, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Reblogged this on gflizza1232 and commented:
    seein it todaaaaay

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