Wreck-It Ralph (United States, 2012)

October 31, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Wreck-It Ralph Poster

With Wreck-It Ralph, the video game/movie synergy is complete. Here's a movie that isn't based on a video game; it literally takes place within the world of video games. The concept is a little like that of Toy Story: the characters in video games have existences of their own and, once the arcade is closed, they can roam around, even crossing over into other games. Wreck-It Ralph never does anything groundbreaking with this idea, but it's cute and clever and evokes nostalgia for gamers of the '80s and '90s. The story is standard-order animated fare about a character discovering his inner hero, but all the references to video game titles from 20 years ago (or more) provides a strong layer of appeal to older viewers.

Wreck-It Ralph (voice of John C. Relly) is the antagonist of a simple, early-'80s style game that bears a resemblance to Donkey Kong. In this scenario, Ralph is DK (before he became the hero in Nintendo's '90s franchise) and Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer) is a Mario clone. The game's straightforward goal is for Felix to make it to the top of the building without getting knocked off by objects tossed at him by Ralph. For 30 years, these characters have been at it, day-in and day-out, while many of the games surrounding them have come and gone. Now, after all this time, Ralph has begun questioning his role in the order of things. He no longer wants to be the bad guy who gets thrown off the roof at the end of every loss. He wants to taste the good life. So he heads off into another game, Hero's Duty, to win a medal. Once that is achieved, however, he takes an inadvertent detour into Sugar Rush on his way home. There, an annoying little girl named Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) steals his medal and uses it to pay the fee to enter a cart race. Determined not to return until he has reacquired his medal, Ralph inadvertently risks destabilizing two games (Fix-It Felix and Sugar Rush) and having them turned off.

The production design alone betrays familiarity with the simple 8-bit arcade hits of the '80s and their slightly more sophisticated home console descendants of the '90s. Fix-It Felix is a dead-on imitation of many of the most popular arcade games of the early '80s. First-person shooters are represented by Hero's Duty. Sugar Rush is a mash-up of console platformers and cart racing games. There are "cameos" by the likes of Pac-Man, Bowser, Qbert, and Sonic the Hedgehog. Terms like "power ups", "boss battle", and "hidden bonus level" are in the movie's vocabulary. There are also plenty of retro sounds and visual effects - enough to make anyone a little teary-eyed for the days of yore.

Wreck-It Ralph can be watched like any other Disney movie; it has the necessary structure and narrative drive. Ralph is a Despicable Me-type hero - a bad guy who ends up being heroic. The film's emotional core comes from his friendship with Vanellope. The settings are colorful and the pace brisk. But there's a whole other "meta" level to the way the film plays out. One wonders whether there will be a game based on Wreck-It Ralph (the movie). Talk about recursion...

The 3-D in Wreck-It Ralph is neutral. There's nothing in it that in any way detracts from the viewing experience. The brightness levels have been adjusted, there's no evidence of motion blur, and the images appear crisp and sharp. However, while watching Wreck-It Ralph, I mostly forgot it was in 3-D. This is a great example of how the format can be used subtly, but it's hard to argue that a minimalist approach is worth an extra $3 or $4. Just as the film gains little by being seen in 3-D, so it loses little in 2-D.

Putting aside Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, which is an animal of a different sort (black-and-white stop-motion), Wreck-It Ralph is probably the most effective animated family offering thus far in 2012. Unlike several of the earlier big-budget productions, it remembers that there might be a few audience members over the age of 9. There's something very old fashioned about the core ingredients of Wreck-It Ralph; these blend well with the "hip" elements. Still, I can't help but wonder whether this is all just one big product placement for something aimed at the home video market. It seems like a game designer's wet dream.

Wreck-It Ralph (United States, 2012)

Director: Rich Moore
Cast: (voices) John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk
Screenplay: Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnsto
Music: Henry Jackman
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2012-11-02
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1