Wreck-It Ralph (Review)
Written by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee
Additional Story Material by John C. Reilly
Directed by Rich Moore
Nostalgia is really hot right now. So are movies that have good stories. Disney combins the two to bring us Wreck-It Ralph, and the video game movie world will never be the same. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but Wreck-It Ralph is still a great flick. Beneath the Pac-Man ghosts, first person shooters, and sitdown racers is a tale of finding your place in the world, becoming a better person while still accepting yourself for who you are, and working for a better life.
There will be spoilers, so if you hate spoilers, get the heck out of this review!
Wreck-It Ralph is the first Disney animated film I’ve been excited about for years, except maybe Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue. It’s a video game world featuring characters you grew up with playing in minor roles. But they’re just flavoring for the real story. Before Wreck-It Ralph is an awesome short called Paperman, which is a cute love story and a neat meld of 2D influence in CG animation.
Overall, Wreck-It Ralph succeeds in having an entertaining story along with emotional elements and a message about accepting yourself but not settling. The voices and characters are fully realized, with Sarah Silverman’s Vanellope standing out, Silverman’s obvious delight with the role shining through the pixels. Jane Lynch’s Sergeant Calhoun is another great character, and they have fun with her archetype without turning her into a parody. Her character’s tragedy shows that even a programmed past can be traumatic.
The first 20 minutes or so are both setting up the world of Fix-It Feliz Jr. and the Game Central Station in Litwak’s Arcade, but also filled to the brim with cameos and references. One might even think it is over-saturated, but once the plot gets moving the references and cameos are almost all dropped in favor of the story. Segregating most of them to the beginning (except for the few well-placed gags throughout the film) was the right move, even if the setup sequences might be a bit boring for kids.
The little things in the references are what makes them great. The old 8-bit characters being jerky and jumpy in their movements to mimic the older graphic style. The visual pun gags like the coke bottle glasses, the graffiti on the walls, the donuts being 70’s cops. Even the famed Konami code makes an appearance. Wreck-It Ralph is one of those films you will watch a dozen times and notice new things each time.
Wreck-It Ralph has a few thematic problems, mostly due to the exact message it is trying to convey contrasted to the actions the characters take in the film. This runs the risk of me going into logical problems of the Wreck-It Ralph universe, so I’ll try not to go toooo overboard while nerding out like a mofo.
After 30 years, Ralph has lost his purpose in life, feels he’s not respected or even treated like a fellow citizen, and is just walking through the motions. The anniversary turns out to be a blessing, because the date and the time passed it implies causes Ralph to begin thinking about that time and what he’s been doing
The citizens of the building don’t treat Ralph with any respect, the video game social strata is similar to what the game setup strata is, the residents laud the hero and shun the villain. The setup of an entire arcade world sort of makes this odd, because people should be more familiar with seeing and knowing characters from other games outside of their defined role in the game. But even after 30 years, with countless characters mingling after hours, everyone is still stuck in their game-defined roles. I was expecting more of a situation like those old Sheepdog and Wolf cartoons where they are friends who punch in on the clock and then become enemies.
The class differences from this are odd, Ralph lives in a literal dump, while the other characters party it up in their expensive apartments, there is even a yacht club style rich guy in the penthouse suite who hates Ralph more than anyone, and he’s really the true villain of the piece. The most influential building resident, and also the most hostile towards Ralph. He both kickstarts Ralph’s mental duress and guilt-trips Ralph when he makes a mess of it. And nothing bad happens to this character at all. He somehow gets a change of heart about Ralph that’s never dealt with beyond Ralph’s ending voice-over explaining how things turned out.
Oddly enough, if you watch the graphic in the beginning of the Fix-It Felix Jr. game, Ralph isn’t really bad, he was displaced by a construction company.. He seeks revenge by literally bringing down the house, only to be stymied by the effort of Fix-It Felix Jr. Felix is the lap dog of the man, maintaining the status quo that discriminates again people like Ralph, which is why Felix is all too happy to party down with the building residents and not care a lick about what happens with Ralph.
Ralph isn’t a moralistic crusader, he acts for his own reasons to try to force people to respect him. Instead of hard work and achievement, earning people’s respect, Ralph dreams of just getting a medal and that alone will change everything like magic. Ralph’s selfish actions threaten the entire arcade. He doesn’t even earn the medal he gets, he sneaks into the tower it is located while the main alien force is asleep. Thus, it is an unearned honor, and the reward is disaster. It is only when Ralph sacrifices himself that he becomes the true hero he wanted to be. It is a decision he wouldn’t have been able to made had he not gone on the quest and bonded with another social pariah.
While Ralph grows as a person, Vanellope magically becomes princess due to the game reset. But she’s still glitchy, her avatar is seen driven by the arcade girl and jumping ahead of the other racers. The voiceover says the gamers love it, and you could easily write it off as a feature. The social stigma of being a glitch is gone, and so is the use of glitch as a stand-in for bitch and probably a few nastier things. Ralph and Vanellope were both jeered for wanting to improve themselves, yet in the end both become heroes.
Wreck-It Ralph is pro-democracy and tearing down class differences, much as Ralph tears down the building. Princess Vanellope immediately abdicates her throne in preference of a Constitutional Democracy. Wreck-It Ralph and the rest of his game help out displaced citizens of other games, giving them homes and even going so far as to rewriting the games code to incorporate them in a bonus level. Instead of allowing for things to remain crappy, Ralph and his friends actively help the less fortunate. By becoming an active participant in his world instead of cuddling up in the dump every night, Ralph has grown as a person and becomes a hero. The cookie medal that he was given by Vanellope may be earned after the fact, but it is an earned medal that would belong on any wall.
By contrast, King Candy/Turbo’s modification of the code and claiming things that don’t belong to him result in suffering of Vanellope and his own eventual destruction. Turbo’s emotional immaturity causes trouble just like Ralph’s, but while Ralph is generally friendly and doesn’t want to cause problems when helping himself, Turbo actively hurts others to get what he wants, going so far as to vilify a small child. His absorption into the Cy-Bugs turns him into a literal swarm of locusts, which will destroy the arcade the same way he destroyed Sugar Rush. While Turbo has become darkness, it is only fitting that he is destroyed by light.
I don’t even want to get into the fact that if this little pocket universe exists at this arcade, it would exist at every arcade, and since 99% of arcades closed long ago, this is a holocaust the likes of which we have never seen since germs were in a commercial as sentient beings and I extrapolated that into the murder of octillions. That also means there are hundreds of Wreck-It Ralphs out there. Do they all go through midlife crises? What happens if there is no Hero’s Duty or Sugar Rush at that arcade? We all know the answer – genocide. Millions of pixels snuffed out. All because you wouldn’t spend your quarters. Don’t you feel guilty?
Rated 8/10 (therapy, therapy, joke time, 8 bit, 8 more bit, old school, old school, He rules!)
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