In true topsy-turvy form, where this summer’s Brave is a Pixar film with Disney sensibilities, Wreck-It Ralph is a Disney film in name only. From its intimate characterizations, right on down to its all-ages accessibility, everything about this wholly unique video game adventure feels so wonderfully Pixar-esque! This is due in large part to the innovative mind of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios’ chief creative officer, John Lasseter, who also serves as the film’s executive producer. Where many industry vets in Hollywood would shudder at the mere idea of setting an original story within a video game world (especially given the stigma surrounding video game adaptations), Lasseter carries onward and refurbishes the scorned genre with the very same “pixie dust” magic that turned films like Up and Toy Story into instant classics. Hiring Simpsons director Rich Moore to helm the project was a risky yet astute move by Lassetter, one that disproves any notion that Disney is reverting back to its soft and cuddly ways. If anything, it demonstrates how all-encompassing Disney has become, appealing to the masses from every trajectory. Calling Wreck-It Ralph the “greatest video game movie of all-time” almost seems too easy, but low and behold that’s exactly what it is. Never settling for mediocrity, Wreck-It Ralph is a triumph from its first level to its very last.
I feel as though I could write a J. K. Rowling-sized novel on Wreck-It Ralph‘s navigable story and massive universe, but I’ll attempt to break it down for everyone, 8-bit style! For thirty years, Fix-It Felix Jr. has been one of the most beloved games in arcade history. Upon its release in 1982, boys and girls have huddled around the 8-bit classic with great fervor, discovering new ways of outsmarting the game’s Donkey Kong-like villain, Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly). Wreck-It Ralph’s goal is to destroy a building (and our hero) before Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer) is able to repair the damage with just a whack of his handy-dandy magical hammer. The year is now present day, and the 30th anniversary of Fix-It Felix Jr. has arrived, with new fans and nostalgic devotees eager to revisit the perennial arcade game on this occasion. But in-game, where the 8-bit characters are mostly three-dimensional beings that co-exist with their fellow arcade game neighbors, Wreck-It Ralph is having a dire midlife crisis.
Even when the game is inactive, the characters in Wreck-It Ralph’s game treat him no differently than the beastly creature he’s meant to portray when the arcade lights go on and game time ensues. Only Fix-It Felix Jr. shows any kind of empathy towards Wreck-It Ralph, but the residents of the game’s building pressure him into ignoring Ralph just as they snootily do. Ralph is fed up with his role as the villain, a role that prevents him from taking part in social events inside the building. Instead, Ralph is relegated to sleeping outside in the expansive dump yard. After a tense scene in which Ralph loses all patience with his prejudiced neighbors, he decides that he’s had enough, leaves his game and “world jumps” to another game in the hopes that he’ll find some kind of acceptance. This form of rebellion is forbidden, and the gaming universe diagnoses such actions as “going turbo” (It’s best to leave the fascinating origin of this term a mystery).
Within Ralph’s story, we meet a slew of classic video game characters that are instantly recognizable: Pac-Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter’s Zangief, and even Bowser. Unfortunately, Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t incorporate these gaming icons into the main narrative whatsoever — they are more-or-less cameos that pop up to add authenticity to the gaming universe we all know and love. This may disappoint avid gamers who thought they would be watching a video game version of The Avengers. However, one scene in which Ralph and some of gaming’s top tier villains gather together for a group therapy session (known as “Bad Anon”) will have hardcore gamers everywhere howling in delight. As witty as it is bitingly critical, this smartly written scene demystifies the idea of “villainy” and points instead to a larger problem in society: our obsession with labeling, which thereby creates division and uncompromising character definition. Are fictional villains truly “bad” or — just like Jessica Rabbit so infamously stated in Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit — are they just “drawn that way?” Kudos to Disney and co-writers Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston for using Wreck-It Ralph’s video game milieu as a launching point for deeper – often times allegorical and insightful — storytelling than we’re accustomed to seeing in animated features. Kids will be perfectly content with the visual splendor and high energy of Wreck-It Ralph, but as an adult it’s gratifying to discover the underlying messages beneath all the Disney flair.
Once Wreck-It Ralph finishes dispensing respectful nods to video game sounds, characters and iconography of the 8-bit past, the story shifts gears considerably and winds up becoming a classic adventure story with a Speed Racer vibe. Following the escape from a game called Hero’s Duty, Ralph finds himself in a brightly pink, candy-infested, racing kart game known as Sugar Rush. Let’s pause for a moment here. Anyone who is anyone knows that less than 1% of video games are made with female consumerism in mind. The fact that the majority of the film’s narrative takes place in a video game designed specifically for female gamers is beyond revolutionary. Sure, a great deal of machismo gamers will probably scoff at this girlish design concept from Disney, perhaps calling it a plethora of names I’d just as quickly chuck down a garbage disposal, but it’s a good thing that Disney isn’t as backwards as the aforementioned ignoramuses.
Here, finally, is where we meet Wreck-It Ralph’s female lead, the adorably rebellious Vanellope von Schweetz. Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a racer hopeful, is ostracized from the game’s community because she’s a “glitch,” and is warned by Sugar Rush’s devilish ruler, King Candy (Alan Tudyk), of her potential to “destroy” the arcade game forever if she’s allowed to participate in Sugar Rush’s Grand Prix Tournament. Ralph and Vanellope team up together, each agreeing to help the other with their individual mission (Ralph is searching for a golden medal he won in Hero’s Duty, which he believes will strip him of his “villain” title forever). What they don’t see coming is an alien-bug invasion and a terrific narrative twist that M. Night Shyamalan himself would bow in reverence for.
With a great mix of original compositions and appropriately-infused pop songs, Wreck-It Ralph’s music is as dazzling as its breakthrough visuals. The voice acting in the film is also stellar, made even more fantastic by the character designs that closely mirror the actors who portray them. Sergeant Calhoun, a character from Hero’s Duty that attempts to contain the alien-bug invasion in Sugar Rush, is the best example I can use for a character whose actor identity is instantly identifiable – Calhoun’s blonde hair and gruff, Joanna Dark-meets-Lara Croft persona certainly screams the equally tough Jane Lynch. Silverman, Reilly, McBrayer and Tudyk all infuse their personalities and physical traits in some form or another in Wreck-It Ralph, making their characters feel that much more convincing and human. The MVP of the voice actors is Sarah Silverman, whose squeaky vocal intonations are unforgettable once you hear them. Not since Ellen Degeneres’ Dory in Finding Nemo has a female vocal performance been so enjoyable to hear and watch.
In all, Wreck-It Ralph surges with video game nostalgia and cuts through the heart with powerful themes of self-acceptance, equality, and the celebration of differences. On paper, these thematic elements may not seem profound, but Rich Moore’s balance of humor and drama makes such hackneyed fare more digestible, less syrupy than usual. Wreck-It Ralph’s glaring hiccups are that it perhaps ditches the classic video game characters a bit too soon – which could be jarring for many gamers who want to bask in the film’s nostalgia factor – and Ralph himself isn’t a memorable Disney hero. He’s your typical big lug with a heart of gold; he means well but keeps crushing things, figuratively and literally. His archetype goes back to the days of John Steinbeck’s Lenny from Of Mice and Men, and even more recently to someone like Hagrid from Harry Potter. John C. Reilly does a great job with the character, and you do feel sympathy for Ralph and genuinely want him to get the respect he so deserves to have, but I’d be lying if I said he’s the best part of the film. I found almost all the other central characters more interesting than Wreck-It Ralph, but it could just boil down to personality preference. I prefer my heroes a little darker, more enigmatic and less definable, not so humdrum. Barring these small issues, Wreck-It Ralph could be a legitimate Oscar® contender if The Academy could just get past the “video game” hurdle. The narrative elements hit all the beats The Academy normally salivates over, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the default choice for “Best Animated Feature” – it deserves serious consideration. Wreck-It Ralph’s charm and nostalgic spirit enliven the gamer inside us all, hopeful that the future of video game adaptations is “GAME ON” instead of “GAME OVER.”
John Kahrs gorgeous Paperman is still the best piece of animation this year, bar none. After first viewing the short at the Los Angeles Film Festival, I wondered if my positivity would wane upon seeing it again. While the initial viewing is always the most special and rewarding, Paperman is just as emotionally griping and technologically innovative as I remembered. Fusing 2D and 3D animation against the black-and-white backdrop of a mid-20th century New York City, Paperman pushes the boundaries of storytelling and animation design, cementing its worth in the Disney Hall of Fame for excellence. Paperman is a story about the rarity of “love at first site,” and when it’s found amidst the bustling chaos of New York City, you simply must chase after it. Paper airplanes are used for such a purposeful intent, that no longer will I see them as playthings when I’m bored. The way paper is animated in this short is nothing short of stunning, with the summation of its parts becoming one giant character of its own. Kahrs also makes great use of the ominous gap between two adjacent buildings that separate the inner-city man from the potential love of his life. You’ll notice design elements that harken back to the glorious days of 2D Disney — some of the girl’s facial expressions recall the coy innocence of The Little Mermaid’s Ariel, and the man’s lankiness is very reminiscent of Roger Radcliffe’s animated figure in 101 Dalmatians. I think what I adore most, though, is that the character designs aren’t composed of solid, flawless lines that normally make a character seem unrealistically beautiful. There are nuances in the animation that make these characters seem more life-like, more like human beings you see walking across the busy streets of Manhattan. Paperman does for me what I’m sure last year’s The Artist did for many people who remembered the silent film era: it brings me back to my childhood, where I remember being enthralled by the music, the characters, the romanticism, and the moments I could replay over and over again in my mind. Simply put, Paperman’s sweeping grandeur is the foundation from which Disney magic is born. I’m going to make a bold statement that I hope I won’t be regretting in a few months time: this is your Academy Award-winner for “Best Animated Short.” I simply cannot envision any other film in the category with the Oscar® but Paperman.
Wreck-It Ralph hits theaters nationwide on November 2nd, with the Disney short Paperman precluding the film. Between these two imaginative works, you’ll be hard-pressed to find something better from Disney this year.