Special Review by Scott Pagliaroni
Modern animated films continue to have more material within them to appeal more to parents, rather than the children they brought with them to the cinema. Pixar was a large contributor to this trend. Disney, not one to die due to lack of adaptation, has taken a fair number of notes on what its subsidiary has done in the past, and implemented them in their latest feature, ‘Wreck-it Ralph’. Nostalgia can be a powerful tool, and is frequently used in film currently, whether through the latest remake, reboot, reimagining, or reference. ‘Wreck-it Ralph’ focuses on the latter, utilizing plot devices familiar to most moviegoers while using the setting and context of videogames to appeal to the older members of the audience.
To note that the film’s titular character is the hero of the movie is to broach the primary subject of ‘Wreck-it Ralph’. Ralph, charismatically voiced by John C. Reilly (‘Cedar Rapids’, ‘Step Brothers’), has a lot in common with the old video game character Donkey Kong. He ‘works’ inside of an arcade game that looks like it debuted in the early 1980s. He gets angry and climbs a building, raining debris down upon the game’s hero, Fix-it Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer; ’30 Rock’, ‘Talladega Nights’). He gets knocked off the building when the player of the game passes the level. However, unlike Donkey Kong, we have a little more back story. Ralph was relocated when the forest he lived in was razed for the building he angrily wrecks. He lives in a dump of bricks and detritus. Also, the game is not even named for him, but for the game’s hero, Felix.
Over the years of the game’s existence, this ennui weighs heavy on Ralph, eventually leading to him joining a support group for the arcade’s video game villains. This is one of the scenes where ‘Wreck-it Ralph’ really shines, as it brings a number of real, not just archetypal, video game characters together that normally wouldn’t be, due to competitive and licensing issues. The scene allows the characters to have a little more personality than they normally had in their arcade homes, and it is these references throughout the movie that not only appeal to the older gamers viewing the movie, but really help to set it apart from most animated movies using similar plots and colorful characters.
To return to the plot, Ralph returns to find that he was not even invited to his game’s 30th anniversary party, as he is not a ‘hero’. He decides to leave, in search of proving his worth in other games. ‘Wreck-it Ralph’ cleverly builds its world of interconnected games, and, following the rules set forth, allow Ralph to travel to other game worlds, meeting other characters such as Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch; ‘Glee’, ‘The 40 Year Old Virgin’) and Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman; ‘School of Rock’). While the movie has plenty of actual video game references, these characters come from games that are a mash-up archetype of other games, paying homage from everything from ‘Call of Duty’ to ‘House of the Dead’, ‘Mario Kart’ to ‘Candy Land’. Alan Tudyk (‘Serenity’, ‘Death at a Funeral’) turns in a spectacularly unrecognizable performance voicing the leader of ‘Sugar Rush’, one King Candy.
With the increasing waves of video gamers entering adulthood, ‘Wreck-it Ralph’ seems like an easy method to make money off of kids and grownups alike. Disney, though, was clever with their insistence on obtaining the likenesses and rights to many actual video game characters, such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter combatants, Tapper, Q*bert, and many more. This lends authenticity along with recognition, which people generally enjoy. Even non-gaming references to pop culture icons such as ‘Star Wars’ or ‘The Wizard of Oz’ will bring unexpected laughter from an audience. It does feel that having obtained access to said classic video game properties, more could have been done with them. The game worlds where the main characters visit are entirely fictional, and nearly two-thirds of the movie is spent in only one of those. More diversity would have been welcomed, but perhaps Disney was limited with just how much and often they could use the characters within the film. Plus, most animated films are created with the hope that much money will be made off of merchandising and licensing of the characters. To do that, the primary characters needed to be Disney-owned.
This is not a blatant cash grab, though. It is fairly clear that the creators are video game fans, and treat the subject matter accordingly. While at times ‘Wreck-it Ralph’ may appear to be pandering to audiences, such as a reference to the infamous Konami code, for the most part it appears to have gamers in mind. While it is nice to believe that something such as a classic arcade of our youth could still exist in some form, the main issue is that this movie may be five or ten years too late. Most of the youth audience being targeted will probably quizzically ask after the movie just what an arcade is.
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On a side note, the short film ‘Paperman’ was aired beforehand. It was a stunningly beautiful black-and-white mélange of classic and computerized animation. The look of the film was something of a cross between a Hayao Miyazaki movie and a French art-house piece. It was a pleasant aperitif that was probably not short enough for the kids in attendance.