With Pixar dominating the animated film world over the past few years, it’s a common mistake to assume they’re the only studio putting out anything worthwhile using that medium. So one might assume that when Disney puts out a new animated movie centered around video game characters (a genre that has been notoriously hard to crack in Hollywood), the result could be less than spectacular. But through a perfect synthesis of story, voice casting, and wonderful animation, Wreck-It Ralph is not only one of the best movies about video games ever created, it’s also one of my favorite movies of the year.
In a California arcade, Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) has been doing the same job for thirty years. He’s a video game character inside a game called Fix-It Felix, Jr., and every day the oversized lug smashes the house of the Nicelanders only for the cheery Felix (Jack McBrayer) to come along and fix it with his magical hammer. Felix is the hero of their game, and one day Ralph decides he’s sick of always being the bad guy. After an embarrassing confrontation with the Nicelanders, Ralph leaves his game to win the approval of his colleagues with a medal of his own. After infiltrating a Halo-esque first person shooter called Hero’s Duty and procuring a medal, he crash-lands in Sugar Rush, a Mario Kart-style racing game where he meets Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a wise cracking glitch with her heart set on racing and who has more in common with Ralph than initially meets the eye.
Ralph loses his medal, and must team with the young racer in order to win it back, but he has also unknowingly transported the villains from Hero’s Duty into Sugar Rush, a development which the tough-talking leader of that game, Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), isn’t pleased to discover. She teams with the concerned Felix to track Ralph and restore things to their rightful order before the villains infect every game in the arcade and destroy them all.
It’s very tough to make a good video game adaptation. Though video games and film share certain elements, the mediums are different in a key way: audiences familiar with the game are used to controlling the characters themselves, so when they see a film and lose the ability to dictate those characters’ every move, it’s easy for a lot of people to disengage from the material. Ironically, screenwriters often worry so much about pleasing the hardcore fans that they hem too close to storylines from the game in question, which many times will alienate the uninitiated audience member.
Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t make any of those mistakes. By creating fictional games that are reminiscent of real ones, the filmmakers are able to take us inside multiple video game worlds and give us a sense of awe instead of a nagging sensation of not being able to “play.” Plus, the film is loaded with cameos from real-life game characters, including Sonic the Hedgehog, Bowser, Paperboy, Ken and Ryu from Street Fighter, and dozens more that fans who grew up playing video games will be able to spot. The way the filmmakers incorporate all of these characters together has a very Toy Story feel to it, which works very well, and it’s fun watching a ghost from Pac-Man interact with Dr. Robotnik from Sonic in a “Bad Anon” meeting, a kind of Alcoholics Anonymous group for bad guys in various games to air their grievances.
The casting is spot-on, with John C. Reilly balancing hilarity with occasional despair as Ralph. Sarah Silverman (an actress I don’t normally like very much) is much more tolerable in animated form, and even Jane Lynch, whose insult-based schtick has worn thin in live action form, garners an intermittent laugh. Jack McBrayer is a perfect match for the nice guy Felix, but my favorite voice was Alan Tudyk as King Candy, the royal leader of Sugar Rush. His ridiculous affectation and flamboyant voice work recalls classic Disney characters from the 60s and 70s, and he’s the white hot center of this film’s blaze of awesomeness. Mindy Kaling, Dennis Haysbert, Ed O’Neill, Adam Corolla, and Horatio Sanz round out smaller roles, but are all good matches with their animated counterparts.
Along with being a fun kids’ movie featuring an oversized comedic lead character, Wreck-It Ralph also deals with some surprisingly deep existential questions. Ralph directly addresses the structure of his society in Niceland, and the film interestingly explores whether or not he has the ability to change his fate. The concept of yin and yang is examined through the dichotomy of Ralph’s destruction and Felix’s repair skills, and it also briefly addresses the impact of violence on our culture. These themes are obviously present for the adults in the crowd, a tactic that director Rich Moore has successfully employed throughout his career, especially during his Emmy-winning run directing “The Simpsons” back in the early 90s.
Above all, Wreck-It Ralph is a funny, heartwarming story of coming to grips with your place in the world. Loaded with references to old games and movies alike (Alien, The Wizard of Oz, and more), it’s an instant-classic that audiences young and old can equally enjoy for totally different reasons. For more on the film, including my visit to the Walt Disney Animation Studios to speak with the filmmakers, click here. Until next time…