Breaking Away from Your Programming: Wreck-It Ralph

By 2006, the Disney Animation Studios had collected a number of projects in various stages of development, including ideas that had been lingering around for decades, somehow never quite managing to take the next step into development stage. One of many such projects was a little thing about a video game—something Disney storyboard artists had worked on back in the 1980s, and then again in the 1990s, going nowhere until John Lasseter, Disney’s then-new Chief Creative Officer, hearing the magic words “video game,” thought of bringing up the concept to veteran television animation director Rich Moore.

Spoilers ahead.

Lasseter had loved Moore’s work on Fox shows such as Futurama and The Simpsons, and thought that Moore could bring a needed comic touch to the Disney studio. Moore, feeling considerably less enthusiastic about the idea, initially disagreed. As he later explained in various interviews, in his mind, video game characters were static and unchanging, trapped in the same plot over and over, giving him little to work with. (You can all fill in your own jokes about The Simpsons here.) But then again, Moore thought, perhaps that could be the point of the film: a story about a character trapped in a video game who didn’t want to be there, and started to rebel. He pitched that concept to Lasseter, who loved it. Three more writers and storyboard artists, Phil Johnston, Jennifer Lee and Jim Reardon (another Simpsons veteran, who had also scripted and done storyboard supervision for Pixar’s Wall-E) were called in to work on the film.

Like most Disney films, Wreck-It Ralph was originally supposed to focus on the hero, Fix-It Felix, Jr., a cheerful character who ran around, well, fixing things. The problem was, as Moore quickly realized, Fix-It Felix was considerably less interesting than his opponent, Wreck-It Ralph. After some more brainstorming, the film’s concept shifted yet again: this time focusing on bad guy Wreck-It Ralph, who regularly attends support groups for video game villains (led by Clyde, aka the Orange Ghost in Pac-Man), and yet continues to want to be something else, a hero.

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Becoming a hero in his own game is an impossibility—not just because it would wreck his game, but because the other characters in his game can’t even conceive of the possibility. Indeed, they won’t even invite him to their parties. In a sign that deep down, these supposedly good characters have just a touch of villainy themselves, they continually treat him as the bad guy and make him live and sleep in an uncomfortable dump just outside of the nice building with its penthouse apartments that he wrecks every time someone puts a quarter into the machine. So, storyboard artists and animators decided to come up with another world where Ralph could—maybe—win a medal and become, at long last, a good guy.

In the end, Disney animators created not just one more world, but four, for a total of five: three worlds based on video games, one world connecting them, and the video game arcade that contains them all. The design work for each world is often brilliant: the background and characters of the Fix-It-Felix game, for instance, not only have a genuine look reminiscent of Donkey Kong and other 8 bit characters, the minor characters all move, just a little, like those characters, even when they aren’t in “game mode.” They don’t look completely like 8 bit characters—Disney tried that, and found that even they could not make 8 bit characters sympathetic and lovable—but they came close.

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Also brilliantly done: the world for Hero’s Duty, loosely inspired by the Halo and Call of Duty first shooter games. Hero’s Duty both mocks that genre, providing a hilariously over the top backstory for chief character Sergeant Calhoun, and embraces it, showing a beautifully detailed apocalyptic world where weddings can get interrupted by giant bugs at any point, sending programmed video characters into a killing rage. Also brilliant, in a completely different sense of the word: the world of Sugar Rush, a hyper bright colorful world of candy and cookies and Nesquik and Coke and other sweet things. It’s not quite as well thought out as the other worlds, but it’s certainly eye-popping.

And of course, Game Central Station, the place that links the different video games together, a place that can only be reached by traveling through surge protectors. Naturally.

I should perhaps point out here that I’m not much of a video game player, and wasn’t even back in the Atari days, mostly because we didn’t have an Atari, so I only played that at other people’s houses. So some of Game Central Station was somewhat lost on me, but it’s not too hard to recognize Sonic the Hedgehog and the poor little characters from Q*Bert, now homeless and desperate for food, any food, as well as a few characters from Pixar films and Tangled sneaking around in the background.

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Not being able to recognize the classic video game characters also doesn’t matter much, since—with the exception of Q-Bert and, somewhat surprisingly, Root Beer Tapper, the bartender from Tapper, not exactly one of the more well-known video game characters out there—none of these characters get to be more than cameos, even the poor video game villains attending their weekly support group. Even, come to think of it, Root Beer Tapper, who just gets a moment of listening to Ralph’s troubles. As cool as Game Central Station is, and as much as it might be worth exploring, the film mostly stays with its original characters.

Which is perhaps just as well, since if the film spent too much time at Game Central Station, viewers might start asking some pointed questions. Like, given that the film emphasizes that all of these characters and their video game worlds are created from computer code, who coded Game Central Station? And why? And, after a character used Grand Central Station to nearly destroy all video game worlds, why wasn’t the place just abandoned? Did the coders fear that without an escape, video game characters would fall into abject despair, crawl to the corners of their screens, and refuse to move? And since that escape is available, why isn’t Ralph spending his nights at Game Central Station and related areas, instead of on uncomfortable bricks in his own game world? Does Game Central Station have any apartments for rent for minor characters, like the ones in Fix-It Felix, whose games have been/are about to be terminated, or are all of those characters doomed to become sad, hopeless and homeless characters hanging out against a wall, holding out little tin cans for a single bit of computer code to give them an energy buzz? Is Pac-Man never tempted to just give up this life of eating bland dots and the occasional bunch of cherries for a life of chugging down root beer instead? We do see him, after all, at a dance party over at Fix-It Felix’s penthouse home. It seems quite possible that in between dots, Pac-Man longs for freedom.

Speaking of that party: Ralph’s breaking moment, it seems, isn’t just the realization that he’s stuck in the role of a villain, but that the other characters in his game don’t even have the basic decency to send him an invite to their 30th anniversary celebration. Though perhaps, given that they’ve forcing him to sleep on a garbage dump for years, he should have seen that coming. Still, for the rest of the film, I couldn’t help thinking that if the Fix-It Felix characters hadn’t been COMPLETE JERKS unable to follow basic kindergarten standards like INVITE EVERYONE TO THE PARTY AND GIVE EVERYONE IN YOUR CLASS A VALENTINE EVEN IF YOU DON’T WANT TO SO THAT THEY DON’T FEEL LEFT OUT, THEY WOULD HAVE SAVED SEVERAL THOUSAND VIDEO GAME CHARACTERS A LOT OF GRIEF.

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Because as it turns out, jumping in and out of different video games is the very opposite of not safe. After claiming his medal, Ralph accidentally brings a bug from Hero’s Duty along with him, which, as it reproduces, is capable of destroying the entire world of Sugar Rush, something that might be a bigger deal if the film didn’t largely drop this plotline for several minutes before suddenly remembering, in between all of the sugar jokes and bonding and plotting that oh, right, yes, ALSO THIS GAME IS ABOUT TO BE EATEN.

Ok, sure, eventually this leads to good things for the Sugar Rush crowd, who unknowingly are dealing with BETRAYAL and CODE CHANGES and SUGARY BEHIND THE SCENES DEALS, but before that, nearly all of the Sugar Rush characters are threatened with NEAR CERTAIN DOOM, and it’s a safe bet that their frantic rush to Game Central Station at the very least inconvenienced quite a few characters and trampled some others, although at least Wreck-It Ralph does let us know that all of the poor little Q*Bert characters are ok and not squished.

Still, I’d also like to know why, exactly, not one person in the film—including the generally kindly Fix-It Felix—realizes that all of this could have been avoided if only the characters had been gracious enough to invite Ralph to their celebration party. But no. Instead, the Fix-It Felix characters continue to ostracize and blame Ralph for everything, including their upcoming demise, right up until Ralph attempts to sacrifice himself to save Sugar Rush. And even then, I didn’t hear an apology, or an acknowledgement that they screwed up, though to be fair, they do finally have the grace to be friendly to Ralph at last, even when that “at last” means “after Ralph has saved another video game world, introduced Felix to the love of his life, and made Fix-It Felix a popular retro game saving you all from termination so, you know, basic friendliness is about the least you can offer him just now.”

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The Pac-Man ghosts are more friendly and helpful. I’m just saying.

The minor characters of Fix-It Felix are hardly the only mean and unthinking characters in the various video games, of course. The villains, as they explain, have to be villains and evil and do bad things, but quite a few non-villain characters in Sugar Rush have also developed a mean streak, despite living lives surrounded by candy and chocolate. To be fair, this is partly because Sinister Things are going on, and because they have—they think—legitimate concerns with the object of their scorn and hatred, Vanellope von Schweetz, voiced charmingly by Sarah Silverman. She is, as both the dialogue and animation make clear, a “glitch,” something wrong, a character whose animation continually flickers. King Candy encourages the other characters to ostracize her and keep her out of the races, for, King Candy claims, the good of the game: she’s, well, different, and if she races, as a glitch, she’ll destroy the game and everyone in it.

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As it turns out—spoiler—this is not exactly true, but rather something invented by King Candy to ensure that he, a character who is also from another game, can retain power in Sugar Rush. Which turns what could have been a merely fluffy story about video game characters trying to change their destinies into a powerful example of how prejudice can be used by people in power to retain that power, a theme that would become an increasing focus of Disney films in the Lasseter era.

In this context, it’s important to note that Ralph, the other villains, and Vanellope aren’t just outsiders: they are programmed to be different. Changing what they are, as the villains, Tapper, and Vanellope point out, is impossible. The villains will always be villains (even Ralph), Tapper will always serve root beer, and Vanellope will always be a glitch.

Changing what they do, however—well, that might be possible.

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Might. Ralph, at least, thinks so. But notably, his first attempt to be a hero also nearly gets everyone in Sugar Rush killed. His later attempt to do the right thing—keep Vanellope from racing, since if she does race, Sugar Rush will be destroyed—is, as Vanellope notes bitterly, not exactly heroic, and, because Ralph isn’t all that insightful, also something that feeds right into the real villain’s plans. Even his last act of genuine heroism doesn’t transform him into a hero: the final scenes show him right back at the villains support group, in between smashing things. What is does do is finally get him some actual friends—and better living conditions.

So it’s not entirely a waste—but it’s also illustrative of the limits of what can be changed, a major change for a studio whose most famous films had focused on completely transforming who and even what you are. Thus, Pinocchio changes from a puppet to a real boy; Ariel changes from a mermaid to a human; the Beast changes to a prince. Rapunzel leaves her tower and becomes a princess—losing her magic in the process. It’s not universal—Simba remains a lion, although he changes from a helpless, guilty little lion cub to a powerful adult lion who realizes he did not kill his father, and Cinderella only changes her dress, not her humanity. But it’s a central part of the Disney mythos developed in film after film after film: try hard enough, wish hard enough, find a little magic—and you can escape. You can change. You can—if you are in Peter Pan—even fly.

Wreck-it Ralph challenges that view, not just by showcasing characters who are fundamentally unable to change themselves, but by showing—and admitting—that even trying to make these changes is not a simple thing, and by having Vanellope, in the end, reject her transformation to princess status. In some ways, this makes Wreck-It Ralph one of Disney’s most subversive films ever, in the sense that it is one of the few Disney animated films to challenge the company line (Frozen, Zootopia and to a certain extent, Moana would go right back to embracing it). In other ways, Wreck-It Ralph’s insistence that no, you can’t change your fate or your place in life or what you were meant to do, although you can tweak those elements to find happiness, makes it one of Disney’s least subversive films ever.

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Not entirely incidentally, all the issues gnawing away at Sugar Rush and Fix-It Felix end up making Hero’s Duty—the violent, first person shooter game—the most ethical, honest and kindly video game of the group, oddly enough. I say “oddly,” since the idea that a violent world can produce honesty and heroism, while a seemingly simplistic world produces bitterness and dissatisfaction and a sugary sweet world cannot be trusted—Well. It’s an interesting message from a Disney film. The Disney films had often studied issues of appearances and trust, of course—this was the central theme of most of the Disney Renaissance films—but the concept of justice and protection coming from a dark, violent world fighting injustice instead of from the cheery rulers of a bright, sugary, seemingly safe place strikes me as something different, something more than the earlier looks at this in the 1990s.

One other thing makes Wreck-It Ralph stand out from its predecessors and most of the films that followed it: product placement. This was something hardly new to Wreck-It Ralph, of course—and in a sense, every Disney film since Fantasia, created in part to help sell more Mickey Mouse hats, and absolutely every Disney film since the opening of Disneyland in 1955 (that is, Sleeping Beauty and later), has more or less been all about product placement—to the point where one Disney film, Hercules, even mocked Disney’s—can I say obsession? Maybe method is the better word here—with marketing toys and other related film projects. Sure, an occasional film or two not created with the secondary purpose of selling toys slipped through kinda by accident, and one or two films had made joking references to other consumer products, but for the most part, the Disney films have been aggressive marketing tools for Disney products, not other brands.

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Wreck-It-Ralph, however, takes a drastic change here, featuring multiple product placements for non-Disney brand items. Even apart from the expected references to various video games—an inevitability in any film focused on video games—Wreck-It Ralph contains a prominent visual of a Subway drink, and prominent references to various candies and other sugary products, including a donut called Dunkin, an eclair called Winchell, and some Oreos cosplaying as soldiers from The Wizard of Oz. (I laughed.) Quite a lot of this—like the Mentos and the Diet Coke—is played for laughs, but one moment—again, the Mentos and the Diet Coke—is a major plot point, making Wreck-It Ralph the only Disney film I can think of that relies on product placement to save the day.

Irritated sidenote: Given the age of most of the video games in the film, those should be Wintergreen Life Savers, not Mentos, which is what we used back in my day—the same day where we played games that looked just like Fix-It Felix—to pull off that stunt. They exploded JUST FINE, thank you very much, and also, I am not old. Just old enough to remember when Atari was exciting and new and Wintergreen Lifesavers were the way to explode things.

Using product placement in this way feels rather less like Disney, and more like, well, Pixar. Which leads me right to the observation, made by many others before me: Wreck-It Ralph feels more like a Pixar film than a Disney film—and not just because of the product placement, either. Its study of a possible world hidden behind our world, and its insistence that otherwise inanimate objects have a life of their own when not beneath human gazes (or, I guess, surveillance cameras) is pure Pixar. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that the product placement issue would also appear, to a lesser extent, in another “Pixar-like” Disney film, Zootopia.

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At least some of this, of course, was because of John Lasseter’s takeover of the studio. Some was thanks to the heavy involvement of former Pixar storyboard supervisor Jim Reardon—even if Reardon had been brought on board more for his work on The Simpsons than for his recent Pixar experience. And some of this, and not just the shot of the Subway cup—just reflected the realities of filmmaking. Even with computer assistance, animation was still expensive.

That Pixar feel, of course, didn’t preclude Wreck-It Ralph from pursuing some of the standard Disney themes, including, as I noted, the concept of the differences between outside appearances and reality, or the outsider who just wants to belong—here seen in two different characters, Ralph and Vanellope. And the Pixar touch did not mean that Wreck-It Ralph inherited all of the Pixar strengths. The Pixar films, for instance, are notable in part for maintaining a tight story focus, something Wreck-It Ralph, probably because of last minute rewrites and concept changes and multiple writers and storyboard artists, doesn’t really have. Oh, it has plenty of plot, but midway through the film, the focus switches from Ralph’s story to Vanellope’s story, when remembering that oh, yes, it also has this little sidestory about some incoming invading aliens to deal with, not to mention the love story between Sergeant Calhoun and Fix-It Felix, which I would criticize for having pretty much zilch to do with the rest of the plot and for bringing up a major plot hole in the last five minutes if it wasn’t such a fun little side romance.

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I should mention one more thing: the voicing, which, as standard for Disney films, runs from serviceable (most of the minor characters and Jack McBreyer as Fix-It Felix) to perhaps overly recognizable (Jane Lynch, pretty much playing Jane Lynch as Sergeant Calhoun, and Sarah Silverman as Vanellope) to outstanding (John C. Reilly as Ralph), to the start of something major—Alan Tudyk as King Candy.

Tudyk, probably best known on this site for his work on Firefly and Serenity, had previously voiced a number of roles for various television cartoon shows, ranging from Batman: The Brave and the Bold to Family Guy, but Wreck-It Ralph was the start of what would be a long and lucrative collaboration. Tudyk would continue from this role to voice parts in Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia and Moana; hopeful fan rumors claim that he will be making a cameo appearance in Wreck-It Ralph 2 and have a role in Gigantic.

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Wreck-it Ralph was a success not just for Tudyk, but also for Disney, bringing in $471.2 million at the box office. That wasn’t quite enough to greenlight a park attraction, but it was enough for Disney to put a sequel into production—this time, a sequel currently scheduled for a full theatrical release in 2018, not just home video. Disney also released the standard merchandise of clothing, mugs, mousepads, figurines and Disney Trading Pins, many still available throughout the parks and in online stores. And, naturally, Disney released multiple tie-in games for various video platforms, and added Ralph and Vanellope to Disney Infinity.

It was another strong sign that the animation studio, after starting off the century in more than a bit of a slump, was on its road to recovery. The question was: could that recovery be sustained? Even with—gasp—other films not focused on Disney Princesses?

Zootopia, coming up next.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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