I wasn’t expecting much from Wreck-It Ralph. Although I adore the Scott Pilgrim movie and grew up playing the very same video games that Ralph lampoons, there didn’t seem to be much else to the movie. In fact, everything about the movie looks like a collection of elements we like from other things. The movie looks like it comes from Pixar, and I like Pixar movies. John C. Reilly and Jack McBrayer play the main characters, and I like their comedic roles elsewhere. The movie’s bright, pixelated art style hits my nostalgia button hard, reminding me of the fun I had playing other bright, pixelated things.
If you mix all of these things together I don’t expect something good, I expect something cynical and ultimately hollow, and it was this expectation that Wreck-It Ralph demolished. This is a smart, fun, robustly structured movie that got me heavily invested in its characters and their worlds.
I mean, at one point I was getting teary-eyed over the possibility that a tiny go-kart made of candy might get broken. So yeah, if you go see the movie prepare for that. (If you bring your kid, maybe warn them that mommy/daddy is going to cry over something very silly, but it’s okay, everything is alright and we can go get ice cream later. Or whatever it is that human children like to eat.)
Also be prepared for a movie with a plot that is smarter than it has any right to be. We start with Wreck-It Ralph giving us a rundown (through his video game villain support group) of his life and how envious he is of the hero who thwarts him on a daily basis. You see, when the game is over and everyone relaxes out of their established roles, Ralph is still treated as the villain. His overtures at friendship are thrown back in his face, his wishes passive-aggressively ignored, and his presence considered undesirable. Even though he’s the bad guy, he’s not a bad guy, it’s just that no one will consider him otherwise. And now that his video game is nearing its 30th anniversary of existence, this shabby treatment has become deeply painful.
Right from the start, Wreck-It Ralph wrestles with some major themes regarding our roles in life, both the ones we feel the need to fulfill and the ones that others want us to fulfill. In the movie, Ralph decides to cast off the latter in pursuit of the former, which literally takes the form of a medal emblazoned with the word “HERO” on it. He hops from game to game in pursuit of this, the movie piling on in-jokes (Sheng Long was here!), until he eventually succeeds.
Then the real bulk of the movie begins. Because as it turns out, Wreck-It Ralph is not just about casting off the labels that others saddle you with, but about the consequences that occur when you do.
Making the issues cloudier is the fact that both Ralph and his squeaky-clean hero-nemesis Fix-It Felix are depicted as fully-rounded people who are capable of bad and good deeds. Ralph is friendly but angry when spurned, Felix is helpful and sweet, but only if that will maintain the status quo.
And then there’s Vanellope Von Schweetz, an unfinished character stuck in a candy-themed kart-racing game called Sugar Rush. When we first meet her, she’s an obnoxious, unrepentent thief who will do anything to race with the other legitimately programmed characters, regardless of the damage that will inflict. Just because she’s an unfinished glitchy character doesn’t mean that she should be completely ostracized. Vanellope is unapologetically herself, she just needs other people to acknowledge that. Her fate and Ralph’s become intertwined with each other, and even though Vanellope is not a nice person, you’re rooting for her anyhow. Even when a later sequence spells out the enormous consequences of Vanellope winning a race (imagine the dream sequence from Terminator 2 except everything is made of candy) you still want her to do it anyway. Just give her and Ralph a fucking chance!
I’ve only gotten maybe halfway through the movie, but I’ll stop here, as the rest of the film should really be experienced without too much prior knowledge. In summary, Wreck-It Ralph’s ending wraps up all of these themes, and a myriad of subplots, in a beautiful final setpiece. (There’s even one genuine surprise in there.) You get an answer to whether it’s better to be yourself or be the self that others want you to be, and it’s the best kind of answer: one that doesn’t stop you from asking the question.
Wreck-It Ralph is also just a really well-done production, from the music to the animation to the performances. The video game environments depicted are wry commentaries on a variety of video game genres but also look like so much fun that you wish they were real. There’s a plethora of jokes for the kids and adults alike. (I could not stop laughing at the HORRIFYING backstory for Jane Lynch’s character, which probably confused the theater full of quivering-lipped children.) And there’s a masterful short cartoon, “Paperman,” before the film that seems like it could revive hand-drawn animation all by itself.
(Update: Thanks to commenter Tesh for pointing out this amazing making-of video for “Paperman.”)
You can see Pixar’s style all over Wreck-It Ralph, even though it’s a Disney-produced film. John Lasseter is the credited executive producer and had a hand in choosing its director (Simpsons and Futurama veteran Rich Moore, who does an amazing job) and writers (newcomers Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston). What has resulted is an amazing fusion of Disney and Pixar’s style; a clear-eyed, fun movie that nevertheless tackles some serious themes.
(And includes a lot of puns related to candy. Like, a lot.)
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and rushes in like Leeeeeeeeeeerooooy Jenkinnnnns all the time.