Two years ago I prematurely said that Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World “does for video games what the Toy Story films do for toys.” This was premature because little did I know there was a film on the horizon that would replicate the Toy Story mythology almost identically in a video game setting. Disney’s new film Wreck-It Ralph takes place in an arcade where the game characters come to life and interact with one another after the children go home.
Toy Story is not the only animated film from which Wreck-It Ralph derived its story and themes, however. Direct parallels can be made between this new Disney video game adventure and DreamWorks movies like Shrek and Despicable Me. Like those movies, Wreck-It Ralph continues the growing trend of mainstream animated movies debunking the classic villain archetype. There is good in everybody, these films explicitly say, and no character has to fit into the expectations the world sets for them. In the case of the Wreck-It Ralph universe, we are all individuals with our own free will and nobody has to submit to their programming.
Does the fact that this candy-colored CGI fantasy feels so derivative make it lose any of its luster? Mostly no, although it took a while before I was fully convinced of this. The first third of the movie was a conglomeration of video game references and tedious exposition of a story we have all seen before. However, once the narrative settles into a rhythm and the earnestness of the story comes through, it is hard not to enjoy oneself.
Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the villain in the classic arcade game Fix-It Felix where he spends all day destroying the apartment building that Felix (Jack McBrayer) and his magic hammer must repair. When the arcade closes, Ralph retreats to his dump where he has a good view of the apartment dwellers celebrating Felix’s success. Fed up with being the bad guy, Ralph crashes the party to find out what he has to do to get people to like him and learns that the secret to Felix’s popularity is his ability to achieve victory and earn a medal.
This revelation sets Ralph on his own quest for a medal that leads him to various unfamiliar video game universes including the war game Hero’s Journey and the racing game Sugar Rush. Most of the narrative takes place in the latter game where Ralph meets an eager girl named Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) and agrees to help her win a race in order to get back the medal she stole from him. Meanwhile Fix-It Felix is in danger of shutting down, giant bugs threaten to take over Sugar Rush, and the evil King Candy (Alan Tudyk) is apparently up to no good.
The narrative meanders until the final act, but the film is overall well paced, which prevents it from feeling distracted. The relationship between Ralph and Vanellope is wonderfully formed thanks in large part to the completely sincere voice-acting by Reilly and Silverman. Too often this type of animated comedy gets caught up in the silliness of its own premise and fails to give the audience something deep and lasting to take away. Reilly’s lovable loser persona comes right through and Silverman brilliantly dances that fine line between empathetic and pathetic. The two actors are the heart of the movie providing the emotional anchor while also contributing some of the funniest moments.
The decision to remain in a single game’s universe for the entirety of the film’s second half was likely to keep from alienating the audience members who never played video games or the young children who won’t pick up on the classic arcade references. However, the inconsistency was slightly jarring and even though the final act put the puzzle together pretty well, there was some definite confusion about why some pieces were there in the first place.
Bottom Line: Wreck-It Ralph is derivative and inconsistent, but has enough heart to make up for most of its inadequacies.