At first glance, this year’s offering from Disney Animation Studios may seem fairly derivative of previous films like Toy Story and Tron. What makes Wreck-It Ralph work is the use of these familiar concepts as a backdrop for the wholly original story and lovable characters it presents to the audience.
For over thirty years, Fix-It Felix, Jr. has been in the arcade, with its titular hero (Jack MacBrayer) and villain Ralph (John C. Reilly) engaged in combat…at least while the quarters are in. When the arcade is closed, the game’s supporting cast worship Felix, but live in fear of Ralph. Ralph attends Bad-Anon, a support group for villains, which includes many of our favorite classic video game villains in cameos. Despite his comrades telling him to embrace who he is, Ralph decides to leave his game in pursuit of glory and redemption, befriending Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) of Hero’s Duty and Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) of the racer game Sugar Rush. As a fellow outcast in her own game, Vanellope and Ralph share a close bond that develops when they each decide to support each other in a joint hero’s journey.
Wreck-It Ralph brings the heart and ingenuity so closely associated with Pixar back to the screen. One thing I have always admired about the best “hidden world” films, like the aforementioned Toy Story and Tron, but also My Neighbor Totoro and others, is the inventiveness in the worlds they create. Ralph doesn’t disappoint on this account either, turning the arcade into a self-contained universe that is as much foreign as it is familiar to gamers across the ages.
Additionally, it isn’t just the arcade itself that is a fine bit of world building. Each game Ralph ventures into on his quest for redemption has its own rules and set up, each of which is fleshed out in a thoughtful way that leads to a big pay off at the end. Sugar Rush in particular is very well constructed, from the ancillary characters to the use of fantastic visual puns. The gags continue with nostalgic cameos from famous video games ranging from Bowser to Q*Bert. And while I usually lament an over-reliance on pop culture humor, the familiar faces almost always serve an additional purpose to the story without bogging it down. Having a good knowledge background of the 8- and 16-bit eras will enhance your appreciation of the film, but not knowing these icons won’t hurt it either.
At the heart of all of this expert craftsmanship is the meat of the character story with Ralph and Vanellope. Their relationship dynamic, and the fact that we are seeing a male/female non-romantic duo, is a rare thing these days and I found it refreshing.
Also screening with the film is the black-and-white animated short Paperman, which pioneers a new animation technique combining Disney’s beautiful hand-drawn and computer animation. It’s a style that I hope Disney uses more, and perhaps in a future animated feature. I continue to applaud Disney for producing and pairing animated shorts with their features. It’s something I wish was more widely practiced with studios in general.
It’s been a great year for animation and Wreck-It Ralph is no exception. It’s a must-see in theaters for nostalgic video game aficionados, and those looking for a well-made film, with great story and awesome characters.
Wreck-It Ralph is now playing in Philly-area theaters.