100 Film Favorites – #63: “Wreck-It Ralph”
(Rich Moore, 2012)
This is the most recent film selected for the list, but it definitely belongs here. I’m going to make a somewhat controversial claim now, so excitable nerds get ready. I hereby declare Wreck-It Ralph the best “video game movie” ever made (though honorable mention is due to The Last Starfighter and The Wizard, which is great solely because, like the Power Glove wielded by its primary antagonist, “it’s so bad”).
In a sense, the film is “Toy Story, but with video games.” It explores the night lives of video game characters dwelling in an arcade. When the arcade closes, the characters can leave their respective games and retire to a central hub area to mingle with characters from other games, and even enter game worlds other than their own (though this activity is largely frowned upon, and referred to pejoratively as “going turbo.”
The main protagonist is the titular Wreck-It Ralph, the “bad guy” from classic arcade title Fix-It Felix, Jr., a game closely resembling “Donkey Kong.” The storyline of the game begins with Ralph, a large, sloppily-dressed man who lives in a stump, being ousted from his forest home when sleazy 80s land developers (curse them!) put up a high-rise apartment building. Seeking revenge, Ralph exclaims, “I’m gonna WRECK IT!” and begins smashing the skyscraper. Fix-It Felix, the player character, is a super-powered carpenter tasked with repairing the building as Ralph damages it, eventually ascending to the roof, where the building’s inhabitants give Felix a medal and toss Ralph off the building into the mud below. This cycle has played out, again and again, for three decades.
Over the last 30 years, Ralph has grown tired of the ostracism he experiences for being a villain. Felix and the other “Nicelanders” populating his game world disdain and fear him, and Ralph is forced to live in the city dump, just offscreen.
In the shared hub area, Ralph has taken to attending “Bad-Anon,” a support group for video game villains. The film opens with a meeting of the group, where Ralph shocks his fellow scoundrels and ne’er-do-wells by announcing that he no longer wants to be a bad guy, so that he can finally experience some of the love and kindness shown to “good guys.” Ralph’s resolve to prove himself a hero increases when he finds the Nicelanders have neglected to invite him to his own game’s 30th anniversary party, stating (sarcastically) that they’ll accept him as a hero once he possesses a medal like Felix’s.
Ralph’s quest for a medal leads him to different game worlds, including Hero’s Duty (a Halo-esque First-Person Shooter), and Sugar Rush (a kart-racing game). Though he does find a medal, it’s quickly snatched away by Vanellope von Schweetz, an impish Sugar Rush character. Like Ralph, Vanellope is ostracized by the other characters in her game, but because she is a glitch rather than a villain.
The rest of the film primarily occurs within the world of Sugar Rush, as Ralph helps Vanellope train to enter the race for the chance to become an accepted game character. Meanwhile, Fix-It Felix (accompanied by Sgt. Calhoun, the tough-as-nails “dynamite gal” drill sergeant from Hero’s Duty) treks across the technicolor candyland in search of Ralph. If Ralph doesn’t return to his game soon, the Fix-It Felix machine will be declared permanently out of order and get unplugged.
Over the course of his adventure, Ralph learns that building friendships, not winning medals, is what makes a “good guy.” Vanellope makes the character roster, and Felix develops a newfound respect for Ralph.
1. The cast. Specifically, John C. Reilly and Jack McBrayer (as Ralph and Felix, respectively). Both turn in very emotionally expressive voice performances, and McBrayer (aka Kenneth from “30 Rock”) has a voice tailor-made for cartoons. Alan Tudyk (doing his best Ed Wynn impersonation) returns to the Countdown as King Candy, the ruler of the Sugar Rush world. Jane Lynch (Calhoun) and Sarah Silverman (Vanellope) also play their parts well.
2. Character development. All four of the main characters have well-developed arcs, learning and growing over the course of the story. This is an impressive feat, particularly with a film with so much fast-paced world-hopping going on.
3. The references. The movie is chock-full of references to video gaming. Many well-known characters make cameos, from Bowser and Sonic the Hedgehog to Street Fighter characters Zangief and M. Bison. Additionally, each game world is copiously detailed to reflect different eras of video game history. This is particularly evident in the older games, including Fix-It Felix and Tapper, in which characters move with a disjointed, frame-by-frame gait, and even spilled liquids and squashed cake assume blocky “8-bit” splatter shapes.
I could keep going.
-Rich Moore, whose past experience largely involved writing for The Simpsons and Futurama, is given a bit of room to be edgier than standard Disney fare. Among Ralph’s fellow “Bad-Anon” members is Satan himself, and Calhoun refers to her subordinates as “pussy willows.”
-The improbable romance between Felix and Calhoun, while a relatively minor sideplot, is charming and handled well.
-I was initially skeptical of the film’s arcade setting. I thought arcades had primarily gone extinct. But Chuck E. Cheese’s are still around, and Dave & Buster’s are keeping arcades in vogue even among the older crowd, so they still have a presence. However, I’d be interested to see the film world’s take on console and online gaming. Specifically, I’d love to see how franchises are handled (say, “Super Felix Galaxy” or “Wreck-It Ralph Country 3“).
I’m reasonably certain this is the longest post yet. All in all, Wreck-It Ralph is a well-written film which balances a twisting storyline, humor, and character development, all wrapped up in a respectful love letter to video gaming and its history. This is one film with considerable replay value.
Tidbits: Director Rich Moore voices both Zangief and Sour Bill (the sourball).