The last CGI animated feature I caught was the somewhat disappointing Brave, and my opinion of the genre in general has never been astoundingly high, save for the rare exception of true genius (like Toy Story and Up). But I’m happy to say that Wreck-It Ralph is a fun and unique enough experience to buck that trend.
Poor Wreck-It Ralph is a much maligned villain of an arcade video game, who longs to be more than just the bad guy. Hence, journey, obstacles, lesson, happy ending.
I suppose that sounds unnecessarily bitter, but we all know that these sorts of movies have a formula. They’re designed primarily for a young audience, so they invariably involve a character learning something about themselves, usually involving some sort of connection with a child or similar character. Wreck-It Ralph hits all the right notes in that regard. The plot is predictable to the hilt, right down to the not-so-subtle hinting that the King Candy character is mythical bad guy or the fake-out misunderstanding between the lesson-learner and the kid, and the mega happy ending.
That’s just what the genre is, this kind of production isn’t going to take that many risks, it doesn’t pay off. Even something as unique and emotionally satisfying as Up follows this basic formula. It’s hard to criticise something that has become so ingrained.
Wreck-It Ralph has decent pacing, isn’t too long and strikes a good balance of emotional storytelling and jokes. I suppose you might not expect so much for the thing to be set in the “Sugar Rush” surroundings, but that just gives them a chances to show off some colour. You come to connect and care for the fate of the Ralph character and for the damaged Vanellope, though not so much for anyone else. This is all built around a decent universe that Disney has created, somewhat like Toy Story I suppose, but offering its own little twists and turns through some of the greatest hits of gaming past.
The humour is effective, though very “meta” and “referency”: this is targeting an older generation who will appreciate the 80’s/90’s era of gaming and a younger generation more used to the FPS’s and racers of the modern age. The jokes will probably fall a bit flat for those not as enamoured with gaming, but Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t rely completely on it to keep the laughs coming, which is commendable. Simple things like showing computer programs having to deal with unexpected side effects of their existence (“Why do I keep fixing everything!?”) or the tragically terrible plot points of brainless shooter games (“She was programmed with the saddest backstory…”) are the kind of things that anyone can enjoy. I enjoyed the comedy anyway, and when a movie like this is making you laugh, it is succeeding in its primary mission.
I’ve always found it somewhat hard to critique VA in a manner that doesn’t sound nonsensical, since so much of what makes up a good acting performance usually is in the hands of CGI artists. For their parts, John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman don’t really have to vary their usual manner of speech or performance – Silverman sounds like she’s just doing another sketch, minus some cursing – ands some excellent face work from the Disney studio does the rest. Reilly has the voice of the crushed everyman, which is just what the part calls for, while Silverman has that kind of manic energy that a hyperactive “glitch” needs to really be memorable.
Jack McBrayer is obviously channelling the do-goodery of 30 Rock’s Kenneth big time here as “Fix-It Felix Jr”, but he has this distinctive twang and good natured urgency in his voice that is always appealing. Jane Lynch is phoning it in just a little, or maybe it’s just that her character, as is typical of FPS goons, has little to actually emote about, even if she and McBrayer are supposed to be the romantic sub-plot.
Alan Tudyk rounds off the main players, and he’s the only one who seems to actually have to work at the voice. He sounds almost unrecognisable as King Candy, and captures the essence of an insane clown pretty well. I was probably most impressed with him, since he was the only one who’s chosen VA actually varied from his everyday voice.
So, it’s all about the visuals, and Wreck-It Ralph never really fails at any point. The universe they have created allows for an incredibly varied amount of styles, from the blocky residents of the title characters game, the dark, gun-metal grey backdrop of the FPS world, or the overloadingly colourful confines of the Sugar Rush race game. That being said, it never distracts too much from the characters or the action going on in the environment, which is a key thing for a movie of this type and genre.
That mix of styles and locations, never staying in any one place too long, helps keep things fresh and exciting. Particular set-pieces, like the initial trek into Hero’s Duty of the Sugar Rush race near the finale were especially eye-catching, but for different reasons. The “Psy-Bugs” were a horrific villain to come up with, and the final merge of them and King Candy produced a monstrosity more at home in a Resident Evil game than a kid’s movie. I can’t fault them for skill, just for the potential nightmares they could be inducing. And if we’re talking criticisms, some of the “real-world” human models in the arcade looked a little basic and rushed when compared to the rest of the “in-game” movie. Those are generally small complaints, and don’t distract too much from the elite and beautiful work that the design team sis elsewhere.
The script flows well, save for some of the typical red flags you would associate with a child’s movie being viewed through an adults eyes – oddly inserted bits of universe padding and exposition, some hard to understand sentences from the higher pitched characters, some maudlin sentimental stuff – but I wouldn’t say it detracts from the thing. I think it’s important to excuse something’s that are clearly meant to make it simpler and more accessible for a younger audience. The comic timing is good, and I really liked how they were able to make believable voices and words for the various little microverses of the arcade, from the uptight citizens of “Fix-It Felix Jr”, the macho gunslingers of “Hero’s Duty” and the more cartoonish denizens of “Sugar Rush”. I think they also succeeded in making Ralph more relatable than mopey and irritating, which is always a danger when you’re creating such a character.
The soundtrack compliments the action nicely, though I can’t say it is on a pair with other CGI orchestral work. They got the sort of Japanese electro-pop stuff bang on from Sugar Rush though.
Speaking themes, I suppose the main one is worth. All of the characters in the arcade system have these defined roles, and the society rules state they shouldn’t break out of them. Any attempt to do so is seen as a dangerous subversion of what the entire system should be, as in the case of the enigmatic Turbo and the outraged reactions when Ralph simply wants to take part in his games anniversary celebrations. Ralph feels like he’s worth more than that, and sets out on a hero’s journey to prove it. In the course of that journey he finds out that worth isn’t truly measured in your physical accomplishments, but in the relationships you form with others and the lessons you learn along the way.
That’s heart-warming enough, but there is a somewhat eye-razing theme at the end of all that, which is simply “Know Your Place”. The end result of the adventure is just some slight tweaks to Ralph’s game, but he remains stuck in the villain role, and becomes satisfied with that for some reason. That was the one plot-hole for me, how Ralph went from dying to break out of the part fate (and programming) had decided for him, to suddenly being happy to play the bad guy. Turbo/King Candy, the character who does the most to turn the system on its head, is the main villain, and the return to a pre-arranged normalcy is seen as the best outcome. I suppose I found that just a little bit of a disturbing message to put out, which seemed to contradict where the plot was going for most of the film. It isn’t spelled out in any kind of stark terms, and the film does a good job of wrapping up some of the more depressing moments (like the homeless video game characters) but it still left me wondering. The final message seems to be that it’s ok to want more in life, but be careful not to reach too high.
There’s also the classics of the genre: The importance of friendship and not isolating yourself is to the fore, as solitary Ralph only becomes happy once he starts associating with people who aren’t just other bad guys. Making a connection with someone outside of his own societal group is what makes him happy in the end. There’s redemption, as Ralph errs several times over only to come right near the end. And I suppose there is kind of a love theme as well, or maybe better put a theme of letting go of the past when it comes to such matters. It’s rare you’ll see such a CGI creation depict the wedding day death of a husband to be, but it was worked really well into the humorous sides of things in a delightfully dark way.
Overall, I enjoyed Wreck-It Ralph, for its visuals, for its humour, and for the faint sense of nostalgia that I got seeing Tapper depicted as an actual bar for video game characters. A film I would recommend.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).
I’d also like to take a moment to compliment the creators of the animated short Paperman, which aired before Wreck-It Ralph in the theatre I saw it in. It was a charming little piece of storytelling, capturing very well a sense of desperation, search for a love and a quest to simply not let the rare chances slip away when they come calling. A deserved Oscar winner.