Like a Toy Story for video gamers who grew up in the 80s, Wreck-It Ralph is a series of in-jokes and references with a purpose and a message. It’s also tons of fun.
WARNING: INSERT COIN FOR MILD SPOILERS!
For the past 30 years, Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) has been stuck in the same job. He’s the villain in the video game Fix It Felix, Jr., wrecking a building that Felix (Jack McBrayer) then ends up repairing after someone puts a quarter in the game. Tired of being the bad guy and wanting respect from the other characters in the game, Ralph jumps his game in a quest to win a medal to prove that he’s a good guy, just like the medal Felix wins after every round of their game.
Ralph ends up in Hero’s Duty, a sci-fi first-person shooter led by the no-nonsense Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch). Although he wins a medal in that game, through a series of events he ends up in the kart-racer Sugar Rush, where he loses his medal and must team up with Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a “glitch” desperate to prove herself as a real racer. Meanwhile, a threat to the entire arcade is brewing thanks to Ralph’s game-jumping, and Calhoun and Felix race to return Ralph home and prevent the loss of everything they know.
I got you, babe.
Disney’s previous theatrical animated feature, 2010’s Tangled updated their standard formula with a more modern sensibility and a much keener sense of self than usual. Buoyed by a perfect voice cast and a script both genuinely witty and touching in equal measures, it neither pandered to children nor aspired to post-modern hipness. Wreck-It Ralph continues this welcome trend, delivering a time-tested story of believing in yourself in a giddy, frenetic journey through classic video games and their associated tropes.
Such a film could easily have fallen apart, lost in a mad jumble of gaming references and sappy characters, but director Rich Moore in a master of balance. Moore is responsible for some of the most celebrated episodes of The Simpsons (“Marge Vs. The Monorail”) and Futurama (the Emmy-winning “Roswell That Ends Well”), and he brings that mix of sarcasm and heart to his theatrical debut. The script by Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston also helps. Paying homage to classic games while also riffing on their structure, it manages to combine elements of action, comedy, romance and drama into a coherent, accessible whole.
Mama gonna knock you out.
The amount of gaming references and shout-outs rivals the life-as-video-game Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World and takes that concept to the next level. For the characters in the film life really IS a video game. While the arcade is open, the characters wait patiently in their cabinets for someone to put a quarter in the machine, so they can do their jobs, whether that be wrecking a building, racing a car or gunning down alien cyborg bugs in a bleak sci-fi landscape. When the arcade is closed, the characters converge at Game Central Station to hang out, have a drink (of root beer) or attend a weekly meeting of Bad-Anon, a support group for video game villains that takes place inside the ghost pen in Pac-Man.
The frame is often remarkably busy, and it would take an entirely separate article to list all the game characters who show up in the background from the easily recognizable (Chun Li from the Street Fighter games) to the relatively more obscure (a knight from Joust). Indeed, it would take a frame-by-frame analysis to spot them all. The film rarely lingers on the known games, however, instead reconceptualizing standard game genres into original but familiar settings. Hero’s Duty is clearly indebted to games like Halo and Gears of War and, in a joke on modern games that’s easy to miss, takes 8 quarters for one play. Sugar Rush is like Mario Kart as re-imagined by a Japanese Willy Wonka, complete with a catchy J-pop theme song. Ralph and Felix’s game, on the other hand, owes its inspiration to older games like Donkey Kong and Rampage.
Naughty boys need love, too.
One of the film’s biggest assets, though, is its voice cast. Unlike most animated films, the primary voices routinely recorded their lines together, giving the characters a degree of chemistry that’s distinctly deeper than most animated casts. John C. Reilly is perhaps the perfect choice for Ralph, having played similarly put upon schmoes before, most memorably in Chicago. He gives Ralph an air of resigned pathos that makes him very sympathetic. Ralph really has no idea what being the “good guy” entails, and all he knows is how to wreck things, but he nonetheless seeks to better himself and prove his worth to a crowd he probably shouldn’t be wasting his time trying to impress. Similarly, Vanellope is ostracized for being a glitch in the game, and she’s determined to fit in with the snobbish and even cruel racers in Sugar Rush, simply because it seems better than being alone. Sarah Silverman tones down her usual subversive comedy, but still gives Vanellope a wicked humor matched with an equal amount of innocence and bravado.
As good as Reilly and Silverman are, Jane Lynch and Jack McBrayer arguably steal the film. Casting Jane Lynch as the tough-as-nails Calhoun may seem like an easy choice, but it’s also an inspired one. With her big guns and exaggerated hourglass figure, Calhoun is a clear homage to Metroid‘s Samus Aran, and Lynch gives her a massive dose of personality, as well as some of the best lines in the film. Similarly, Jack McBrayer makes the Mario-inspired Felix into a unique character, an inspired commentary on the blank slate good guy protagonist of classic video games. His “aww shucks” demeanor works surprisingly well with Calhoun’s tough-as-nails tone, and they make a highly entertaining and enjoyable team. Among the supporting roles, the most enjoyable is Alan Tudyk‘s brilliant turn as Sugar Rush‘s King Candy in a pitch-perfect homage to Ed Wynn.
How do you say…ah, yes…@!#?@!.
The film does have its flaws, however, primarily that for the vast majority of the film there is no clear antagonist. Ralph is the antagonist of his game, but he’s not really a “bad guy.” He’s just doing his job, after all. Similarly, the cliquish racers in Sugar Rush don’t have enough substance or personality to be real villains, even if just examining Vanellope’s part of the story. The closest the film gets to an obvious villain for the main characters to fight against are the mindless Cy-Bugs from Hero’s Duty, but they’re absent for a good portion of the film. It makes sense in a way, however. If every game is like an office, all the bad guys are just employees whose job involves, as Zangief says during the Bad-Anon scene, “crushing men’s skulls like sparrow’s eggs between my thighs.” A plot thread whose potential is never realized revolves around the fact that the citizens of Nicelandia in Fix It Felix, Jr. bulldozed Ralph’s home to construct their apartment building, and there never seems to be a good reason why they deserve the land more than Ralph did.
With all the video game properties appearing in the film, the most notable absence is Nintendo. Capcom, Sega, Midway, Namco and Konami all share screen time, but the only prominent Nintendo cameos come from a brief, non-speaking King Koopa and a classic NES controller used as the door to a data vault (the key, of course, being the Konami Code from Contra). Disney apparently could not afford the exorbitant licensing fee for Mario or Luigi, which may be why Felix in so many ways resembles Mario. Similarly, there are a few references to M-rated games, but as this is a PG movie so they’re played down. Kano from Mortal Kombat and Cyril the zombie from House of the Dead both make cameos in the Bad-Anon scene, but they’re credited as only “Cyborg” and “Zombie” in the cast list. It’s an understandable move on Disney’s part, but it’s equally baffling since Kano re-enacts his famous heart-ripper finishing move on an amused but otherwise unaffected Cyril.
All that’s missing is that damn Sarah McLachlan song.
The film’s faults are minor, however, in comparison to its overall charm and verve. Sweet without being saccharine and clever without being too full of itself, Wreck-It Ralph is both a light-hearted romp and a serious examination of what it means to be a hero. In the end, being a hero may just mean being true to yourself and believing in your own talents, instead of comparing them to others. Who knew 8 bits of information could hold so much depth? Now, where are my quarters?
Rating: 8 out of 10 / A-
JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor. Continue? 10…9…8…7…