Making a family movie based on old 8-bit video games seems like a really bad business idea: none of its target audience would ever have heard of –let alone played— classic titles like Frogger or Tapper or Ms Pacman. The references would be aimed squarely at gamers who were now at least 30 or 40 years old and probably less inclined to see an animated film.
Wreck-It Ralph begins with a genius conceit and proceeds to explore it in wonderful ways. It takes place within the confines of a large video arcade – you know: the kind that doesn’t really exist anymore. Machines from the 80s apparently share the floor with newfangled shooters and racing games. The only difference is that when the kids have all gone and the lights are switched off, the characters clock-off and hang out in Game Central, a train station that’s housed in a standard household power strip.
Ralph (John C Reilly) is the bad guy in a perennially popular video game called ‘Fix-It Felix’ that’s a lot like Donkey Kong. For over 30 years, his job has been to scale the outside of a building, smashing in its windows with his oversized hands and feet while the game’s titular hero (30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer) works to fix everything. While the building’s residents celebrate Felix’s victory by hosting a disco in his honour, Ralph attends a support group frequented by a number of video game bad guys. (In a guaranteed nergasm moment, Bowser from Mario and Mortal Kombat’s Kano are seen sipping coffee in the same room as Dr Robotnik).
Ralph isn’t happy being labelled as a villain whereas the others have learned in time to accept their lot in life: as Zangief from Street Fighter tells him, “just because you’re a bad guy, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad guy.”
Determined to be seen as a hero by his neighbours, Ralph leaves his game in an effort to win a medal in one of the arcade’s other games. He finds himself in Hero’s Duty, a modern first-person shooter that’s run by the tough-as-nails futuristic soldier Sergeant Calhoun (voiced by Jane Lynch). As it turns out, modern video games are a lot more brutal than Ralph had ever expected.
He eventually finds himself in a Mario Kart-inspired racing game where everything is made of sweets and the citizens are ruled over by the Candy King, a creepily jolly figure that sounds an awful lot like the Mad Hatter. He finds an unlikely ally in a Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) –a plucky young girl from Candy Land whose glitchy programming prevents her from fulfilling her dreams of racing cars– and they reluctantly strike a deal to help each other out.
This is the third feature from the newly revamped Walt Disney Animation Studios, which now operates under the stewardship of top Pixar man John Lasseter and it certainly shares a lot of DNA with his first film, Toy Story. They’re both about playthings that lead their own lives when nobody’s watching and they both seemingly understand the value of crafting strong characters.
Much of Ralph’s aw-shucks appeal comes from Reilly’s voice –which is never more likable than when it’s used to play a guy who’s up against the world– but it’s really the quality of the writing that shores up the entire film. Even Sarah Silverman’s ‘divisive’ vocal quality is used to great effect: her character never feels cloying or too cutesy in the way of most child characters. The way the characters’ journeys come together is one of the picture’s greater pleasures.
Having made his name on the Simpsons and Futurama, director Rich Moore brings a high joke rate to the project as well as an appreciation for in-jokes pitched at different levels (a reference to the Konami cheat code would fly over the heads of most people under 30). But like the best family films, Moore and his writers never presume to talk down to their audience by broadening the references. The world of Wreck-it Ralph is very specific but the themes are universal. This has always been a hallmark of Pixar films and now it looks to be a philosophy that’s taken hold at Disney.
Last word: Wreck-it Ralph is the funniest and perhaps the most charming animated film from the past year. This is the movie that will work with everybody. That is a (legally non-binding) guarantee from us to you!
Wreck-It Ralph now available to buy and rent at blinkbox