Disney’s current streak of animated features has seen a consistently high level of quality, as well as a greater variety in stories than any previous generation for the studio’s animated output. Perhaps the best example of this variety is Disney’s 2012 animated feature, Wreck-It Ralph.
Wreck-It Ralph is something of a cross between Toy Story and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but with its focus being on the world of video games. The film takes place within the arcade machines of Litwak’s Arcade, where the video game characters live their daily lives during closing hours, with the roles they play in their respective games during the arcade’s operating hours being something of their careers.
One of these games is Fix-It Felix Jr., a not-so-subtle nod to the old Donkey Kong arcade games, which sees a Mario-esque construction worker, the titular Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer), climb a building to stop the villainous Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly).
Ralph is good at his job as a video game bad guy, but it’s thankless work. The villains are the outcasts of the video game world, even though many of them – such as Ralph – are good people outside of their job. Felix is just about the only friend Ralph has, but even he can’t ease things with the other denizens of their game.
Tired of his lot in life, Ralph sets out to be the good guy for once, as to finally gain some recognition. He gets this opportunity after a chance encounter with a soldier from a game called Heroes Duty, a modern FPS-style game that’s more rewarding to Ralph’s more destructive nature. Ralph soon learns that game-jumping is serious business, however, as his ventures outside of his game leaves Fix-It Felix Jr. without its villain, essentially rendering it unplayable and risking it from being removed from the arcade. Worse still, Ralph’s actions inadvertently unleash a problem that threatens the entire arcade, and Ralph will need to venture to a game called Sugar Rush (a kind of hybrid between Mario Kart and Candy Land) and team up with the glitchy, would-be racer Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) if he wants to save the day and prove himself a hero.
The story may seem to evoke elements of past animated features, with Ralph’s motives echoing Shrek to some degree, but Wreck-It Ralph becomes something original due in large part to its setting. Placing the action of the film in the realms of video games not only gives the film some of the most inventive and varied visuals in any animated feature, but even gives the film a strong sense of world-building (characters can’t regenerate if they die outside of their own game, glitches like Vanellope can’t leave their games, and other interesting rules). Not to mention in allows for all kinds of video game cameos.
Ralph attends support group meetings for video game villains alongside the likes of Clyde from Pac-Man, Bowser, Dr. Eggman, M. Bison and Zangief (who is notably out-of-place among villains). Sonic the Hedgehog provides public service announcements (which may be a sly reference to similar PSA segments in one of the old Sonic cartoons)., and the characters from Q*Bert have become vagabonds after their game was unplugged from Litwak’s arcade.
The references don’t stop with the cameos, even the film’s humor reflects video game culture, from character dialogue to visual gags (including the Konami Code). You get the feeling the filmmakers had a lot of fun throwing in shout-outs to their favorite video games.
On the downside of things, most of the video game-based nature of the film seems to disappear almost entirely as soon as Ralph enters Sugar Rush. Though Sugar Rush bears a number of similarities to Mario Kart, the video game cameos come to a dead stop, and the humor deviates from referencing Mario and Metal Gear to Nesquik and Oreos.
I fully admit that my status as a fan of video games may make me especially bummed out that the video game theme doesn’t feel properly carried through the whole film, but even with my preferences set aside, the fact that the central theme of the film’s world seems to shift so drastically midway through may feel a bit like the filmmakers ran out of steam on their initial subject.
Still, even with the change in the nature of the film’s world, Wreck-It Ralph is still a terrific entry in the Disney canon for its well-paced story and memorable cast of characters.
Wreck-It Ralph easily wins us over. His status as a misunderstood outcast makes him easy to sympathize with, while his more dimwitted and brutish tendencies make him funny and likable. Fix-It Felix is just as memorable, being a classic video game hero, Felix is an overly-polite do-gooder whose graciousness almost parodies itself. And Vanellope, on top of being cute and spunky, is in a similar situation to Ralph, being an outcast in her game for being a glitch, making her just as sympathetic as Ralph himself.
Then there’s Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the tough-as-nails soldier from Hero’s Duty who seems to be a parody of the “edginess” of more contemporary gaming, and King Candy (Alan Tudyk), the mischievous king of Sugar Rush who will stop at nothing to prevent Vanellope from racing.
Another highlight are the visuals themselves. Because its setting allows for multiple different worlds to be presented, Wreck-It Ralph is able to showcase a constant visual variety in its animation. The retro, pixellated suburbs of Fix-It Felix Jr., the gritty and metallic world of Hero’s Duty, and the insanely colorful landscapes of Sugar Rush are all distinctly realized, yet they are all weaved together effortlessly through the film’s art direction. Wreck-It Ralph is simply a constant visual delight.
Wreck-It Ralph is a highlight of the studio’s ongoing winning streak. It’s an undeniably entertaining film that – although it seems to lack the confidence in its subject matter to sustain it the whole way through – is something of a love letter to the video game medium, and one of the most visually appealing animated films Disney has ever made. It’s a whole lot of fun.