The makers of Wreck-It Ralph clearly have a loving respect for video games old and new: with fictional arcade titles that can actually be played on Disney’s website, game characters who make their virtual home feel believable and lively, and an exciting, humorous, and deeply emotional story, Wreck-It Ralph succeeds on pretty much every level, especially as a tribute to classic arcade gaming. Stumbling mainly in a few areas of content appropriateness, this is an overwhelmingly wonderful movie.
It’s kind of like Toy Story all over again …
Wreck-It Ralph takes place inside the games and the central surge protector of a thriving video arcade, and its main “hero” is initially anything but: Ralph, a giant of a man who is the building-damaging bad guy of Fix-It Felix, Jr.. That game’s actual protagonist is as simple as the villain: Felix takes his hammer, climbs the residential building, and repairs all the windows Ralph breaks. But even though this has been going on for as many decades as his game has been plugged in, Ralph doesn’t want to be a bad guy, and he most certainly doesn’t want to be maligned as one, at least not while Felix is getting medals, pies, and pats on the back for doing–as Ralph does–only what he is designed and programmed to do.
Free will does exist within this setting, however, and Ralph confesses his life doubts in a support meeting of various video-game villains including a talking zombie, Kano from Mortal Kombat (who rips out said zombie’s heart), Zangief from Street Fighter II (remember that the Soviet Union still existed when that game came out), Bowser from various Mario games, one of the Pac-Man ghosts, and many more. It’s a hilarious piece of video-gaming fan service that doesn’t add anything to the plot and doesn’t need to.
Sneaking a cherry out of Pac-Man, Ralph embarks on his journey toward heroism in fits and starts: he gives part of it to a destitute Q*Bert, whose game has been unplugged, leaving him a homeless beggar occupying the arcade surge protector, which itself is a sort of transit hub between games. Ralph gets no reward, and Felix gets a party and a fireworks show. Wanting to make amends and to find out how to gain respect, Ralph crashes said party and at least tries to be nice. There’s an uneasy peace among the partygoers, but unfortunately few if any of them believe in Ralph’s ability to become a noble human being. His clumsiness and anger-management issues wreck the party, but he’s already begun to establish himself in a sympathetic light.
With some hilarious references to Mario and even to Tapper (the root-beer variant, though this isn’t immediately obvious) and Metal Gear, Ralph has a chance meeting with a heavily armed and armored super-soldier whose game shares its title with this heading and can be played here. Ralph wants to earn a medal of heroism in someone’s game, even if he can’t do so in his own, so still being in part a bad guy, Ralph steals the man’s arms and armor and runs off to Hero’s Duty. This is a bug-fighting rail shooter that somewhat evokes Area 51 or Time Crisis, and its no-nonsense main character, Sergeant Calhoun, leads her semi-competent fighting force through a pretty epic fight sequence where cyborg insects get splattered by the dozens. It should definitely be noted that while most of her dialogue is clean, there’s a really weird “pussywillows” insult that seems to cross a line of taste in a children’s movie.
Running around in advanced armor without any special training, Ralph’s interference in another game means that he isn’t around when someone wants to play his own. Felix and his community are utterly confused by Ralph’s absence, and a girl trying but failing to play Fix-It Felix, Jr. complains, resulting in the game being marked as “out of order.” If it is not fixed, it will be unplugged, making all of the game’s inhabitants homeless.
Ralph’s heroic journey almost feels like a deconstruction of such, because while his intentions can be praised, his means of fulfilling them put everyone around him at risk. Game-hopping (“going Turbo,” a phrase repeated too often in the story before it’s properly explained) is possible in the movie’s arcade setting but is generally treated cynically, because while these virtual people have lives of their own behind the scenes, they also have jobs they are expected to be present for. In other words, when Felix and Sergeant Calhoun become involved in finding Ralph and undoing the damage he’s largely unintentionally caused, their absence from their games puts them on a strict time limit. Interestingly, the various game characters affect their games’ input-output systems as much as the reverse is true: when Felix panics and begins moving around on his own, the arcade unit’s joystick moves erratically.
Ralph winds up in a candy-coated sweet tooth’s paradise that holds its own go-kart races, wherein his inspirationally established and rather self-aware quest to help a little girl win a race becomes much more complicated than they or anyone else in the movie would have imagined. Vanellope von Schweetz is an extremely energetic individual who, like Ralph to a degree, is looking for her proper place in the world. Unfortunately some of the other girls in Sugar Rush bully her, and some of their insults–fake convulsions that are relevant because of Vanellope’s contested status as a “glitch” character–could be interpreted as their also making fun of epileptic symptoms.
Felix and Sergeant Calhoun, now in this setting, begin to become more interesting individuals, if to different extents: while the normally carefree Felix becomes angry at Ralph but doesn’t generally change who he is as a person, Sergeant Calhoun (whom other characters note has been programmed with a tragic backstory) is deeply affected by said tragedy, which still gives her emotional triggers and flashbacks; the poor girl’s past is definitely not something that’s brought up once and never mentioned again, and it’s easy to see how this experience affects her personality and her interactions with other people. Wreck-It Ralph never becomes difficult to follow, but with nearly half a dozen main characters and multiple plots, including an actual villain’s, happening at once, it’s a wonder and a compliment that the movie remains as consistently understandable as it does.
A training montage for Vanellope’s go-kart race (which features the Rihanna song “Shut Up and Drive,” whose oft-repeated title some parents may not want their children repeating) is fun to watch, because even though Wreck-It Ralph is not a Pixar film, the graphics, animation, and even camera angles are all very high-quality, making this quite possibly the only film I actively regret not yet having seen in 3D. This scene is also enjoyable because Ralph gets to place his bulk and strength toward a positive use. There are no throwaway action sequences in the film, such as with the bug fights; those happen when they are needed to advance the plot, and as a result, their outcomes tend to be very creative.
The story goes into really engrossing territory when it introduces shades of gray into its morality. Ralph at one point is faced with an unenviable greater-good decision, and the choices he makes, while logical in context, hurt another character’s feelings in a scene that’s utterly heartbreaking to watch. It’s been years since I’ve seen a children’s film being willing to deal with these kinds of emotional themes without feeling manipulative, and it’s rare that I’ve seen this done so well.
Conclusion: This could stand with the best of Pixar’s own works.
Other than some toilet humor (including an uncomfortable if restrained amount of fake profanity, such as telling one character to “move [his] molasses”), an unnecessary scene playing female-on-male physical abuse (even if well-intended and consensual) for laughs, a cheesy romance, and a ridiculously catchy song in the ingeniously designed closing credits, Wreck-It Ralph is a marvelously designed work of animation that deserves to be watched again and again. It’s the best video-game movie not at its time based on an actual video game I can recall seeing (sorry, TRON–which, by the way, has a great reference during the credits, as do many arcade games), and it’s a story that places its characters first and manages to keep all of them interesting no matter how much they change over the course of the plot.
Wreck-It Ralph is, above all, a movie that knows when to be fun and serious and is equally adept at being either. The “hero’s” transition to being such feels believable and never forced, the villain feels credible and legitimately evil, and the setting looks like a lot of fun to live in, even if some sequences (including one where having one’s game unplugged is established as a fatal event) could honestly be a bit scary for young children. While some events such as a character having his armor stolen feel a bit overlooked in the grand scheme of the plot, the story and its ending are satisfying and even heartwarming. Likewise, while there’s a lot going on, none of it feels random or irrelevant, and the movie’s conclusion feels creative while also being logical. Watch this movie today.
(The last month and a half has been incredibly busy for me, dealing with everything from Pokémon to a relative’s passing, the busyness that comes from that, my family’s sickness, and Thanksgiving, these being the reasons for my delay in updating. Thanks to all of you for your continued support; I gratefully appreciate it.)
This post was originally written and published on my movie review blog, Projected Realities.