Monday, November 12, 2012



- There's something that's just inherently awesome about the fact that Wreck-It Ralph even exists. I mean, within the insular world of videogaming, there's no shortage of nostalgia for the medium's 80's and 90's glory years. But within the larger pop-culture universe, it's not exactly common to see the likes of Bowser, Chun-Li, Dig-Dug, and Q-Bert treated with the same kind of iconic status as their film and TV contemporaries. And yet, whole generations have now grown up with these digital characters as omnipresent and as revered as were the great screen icons or TV personalities of days gone by. Where gaming has often felt trivialized in pop-culture has often been misguided attempts to translate interactive games into non-interactive narratives. Yes, games have become more and more story-driven in recent years, but still ... they are games, and the narrative exists as part of a larger world or experience. And that's why Wreck-It Ralph is so cool - it's not a Pac-Man movie or a Dig-Dug movie ... the film skips over any attempt to bring a complex storyline to relatively simplistic characters. Instead, it goes the meta route - going inside the world of videogames and imagining the inner-workings of how this world functions - a brilliant melding of Toy Story and Tron. And so ... old-school gamers will be thrilled to see a movie that reverently calls out and gives props to so many touchstones of gaming culture (in doing so, acknowledging that this is now truly mainstream, pop-culture).

Still, unlike some of the older-skewing Pixar films that tell stories aimed as much as adults as they are kids, Wreck-It Ralph - from Disney proper - is much more a traditional Disney flick ... it's even got a princess (albeit a pretty nontraditional one). Perhaps that's where I found the movie just a bit frustrating - finding out that a lot of the call-outs to old-school games were more of a surface-level thing. Because even as many of us will love the shout-outs to the Konami code and Metal Gear Solid, the tone of the film is, nonetheless, decidedly kid-centric. That's not necessarily a knock, but I did feel that too often the movie felt overly simplistic and, well, kiddie. Maybe the outward similarities to the Toy Story series raised my expectations, or maybe all the old-school references made me think that this would be tonally more aimed at adults. But whatever the case, there's still a lot to like in Wreck-It Ralph. Visually appealing and filled with memorable and funny characters, kids are guaranteed to love it. But its saccharine-tinged sweetness may grate, just a bit, on those old enough to actually know what the Konami code is.

WRECK-IT RALPH paints a picture of videogame characters as blue-collar clock-punchers. By day, the characters dutifully go about their pre-programmed roles - whether that involves fighting off alien hordes, racing go-karts through candy-coated fantasy lands, or, in the case of Ralph, smashing an 8-bit building so that the user-controlled Fix-It Felix can strive to repair it. Essentially, Ralph is a nice guy, despite the fact that he's long filled the role of videogame villain, and has been programmed with a penchant for reckless destruction and Hulk-esque smashing. But because of his villain status, Ralph is a pariah among the other denizens of his videogame. His nemesis Felix is revered as a do-gooding hero, worshiped by all of the other non-playable characters in the game. Felix goes to parties and is cheered when he enters a room. Ralph lives in a dump (literally), and his only refuge is a support-group for videogame villains, where he commiserates with the likes of M. Bison and Bowser. Therein lies the most brilliant conceit of Wreck-It Ralph - that all videogame worlds are connected through a Grand Central Station-esque hub, and that during off hours, the various characters - from 8-bit pixel-blobs to realistically-rendered next-gen warriors - co-mingle.

That idea is where, to me, Wreck-It Ralph is most captivating. On a quest for medals that might change his status from villain to hero, Ralph violates videogame taboo, and leaves his game in search of new adventures and opportunities. Seeing Ralph explore the inter-game hub-world is visual eye-candy, and a fun game of Where's Waldo-style spot-the-character. Even better is when Ralph ventures into a modern Halo/Gears of War-esque game, where he encounters Calhoun - a badass woman warrior who shows him the ropes. This is the most exciting sequence of the film - a breathtaking series of action set-pieces that are also thrilling in how they juxtapose Ralph - a simple, 8-bit character - with the sleek, grim n' gritty world and complex gameplay of that typifies the modern era of games. Ultimately though, this section of the movie is sort of a tease. The next game-world that Ralph journeys to - the fruity-pebble world of Sugar Rush - is where the remainder of the movie is set. And so suddenly, the movie that promised to be some sort of mad-genius meta-analysis of the evolution of videogaming becomes a pretty standard-issue Disney story.

Once in Sugar Rush - a kart-racing game that's like Mario Kart high on pixie-stix - Ralph meets one of the movie's breakout stars, Vanellope. Vanellope is a "glitch" - she fades in and out of existence and is, like Ralph, a bit of an outcast in her own game. But while Ralph was a vital part of his game - albeit the villain - Vanellope's glitch status prevents her from even properly participating in her game's races. Eventually, we learn more about why that is, and how this fate befell Vanellope. But once introduced, she and her big brother/little sister relationship with Ralph sort of takes over the movie.

At this point, I'll mention the voice-acting in the film - because it's hard to talk about Vanellope without mentioning the fantastic voicework of Sarah Silverman. Silverman helps make Vanellope one of the most distinct female leads ever in a Disney flick - quirky, witty, smart-assed, and packing some serious 'tude. I like the Vanellope character a ton, and I suspect that girls and women are quickly going to embrace her as sort of a cult-favorite - because she is so different from what we typically get in a Disney movie. There are so many things about Vanellope that are a bold choice - from the choice of Silverman to voice her, to the semi-sadistic glee she takes in getting back at those who've belittled her and kept her down. Vanellope is, in many ways, sort of awesome. And yet ... she makes bathroom jokes. Lots of them. And rides a very, very fine line between being endearing and just plain annoying. Maybe part of that lies in how her story takes over the movie at the expense of the chance to see more cool videogame worlds or characters. Maybe part of it is that it's sometimes hard to feel overly sentimental - as the movie wants you to - about such a smart-alecky character. Whatever the case, I'll profess that over the course of Wreck-It Ralph, I kept going back and forth between admiring Vanellope's moxy and wondering if/when she might be gobbled up by a flashing-blue ghost. I guess I felt similarly about Sugar Rush itself. I loved it as a sort of parody of overly-cutesy and whimsical game worlds. But as a setting for over half the movie to take place in, with a neverending stream of candy and sugar puns in tow? After a while, I was desperate to see what other worlds were out there in videoland.

But back to the voicework in the film - it's pretty excellent overall. John C. Reilly is right in his sweet spot as lovable lug Ralph. Jack McBrayer could play Fix-It Felix in his sleep, but he does the part to perfection. I actually think that perhaps Jane Lynch was a bit miscast - her distinct voice evokes more stern school principal than badass space marine, but as always, Lynch gives the part her all. Meanwhile, Alan Tudyk channels golden age comedy icon Ed Wynn in his portrayal of the affably evil King Candy. It's another part that is highly entertaining, but borders a bit on annoying in certain segments - although what Tudyk does from a purely vocal perspective is pretty remarkable. There are all sorts of other impressive vocal turns here (my favorite was a cameo from 24's Dennis Haysbert as a space-marine commander). But I'll go back and give Reilly even more credit, because he really does carry the film and make Ralph into a sympathetic, all-too-human character.

Wreck-It Ralph opens strong - with its eye-popping look inside this imaginary, virtual world of intermixing videogame characters and concepts. But Ralph's overarching premise eventually takes a backseat to the saga of Vanellope and Sugar Rush, and loses some momentum. The film itself takes on some of the characteristics of the Sugar Rush world - losing a bit of its bite and satirical edge in the process. But I was pleased that the movie pulled itself together for an exciting finale, that combined action, humor, and heart to end on a crowd-pleasing yet still-slightly-subversive note. And throughout the film, there are so many great little visual touches - the distinct way in which the 8-bit characters move as opposed to the more modern ones, for example - that shows the level of care and thought that was put into this universe. At the same time, a lot of issues were sort of touched on that I would have liked to have seen explored more. How does an 8-bit character feel in a world where he's now outdated? How do the arcade characters (and their real-world owner) feel about a world where arcades are quickly becoming extinct? Again, some of these story points are touched upon, but the movie does sometimes seem content to do that Where's Waldo thing I mentioned earlier. As cool as it is, it can be a little distracting at times. Especially given that Disney got permission to use some of the iconic characters (Pac-Man, Sonic), but not all (no Mario, for example). It gives a slight feeling of randomness to the movie - like there was a lot of last-minute scrambling to make adjustments based on who was or wasn't licensed to use (and on a sidenote, I'll admit I was slightly bothered by the fact that so many non-arcade game characters and concepts - things that have their roots in home game consoles - appeared in a world that was supposed to be linked to a physical video arcade - anyone else bothered by this?). That said, yes, I got a huge kick out of a lot of the references, and all of the visual and aesthetic tributes in the film. The ending credits alone are a gorgeously-rendered homage to classic videogames that will make even the most hardened geek crack an appreciative smile.

Wreck-It-Ralph is a fine effort from Disney - it's got visual sparks, great characters, and a heaping helping of heart. It may suffer a bit from trying to be all things to all people, rather than a completely unfiltered creative vision. There is that sense that this one, perhaps, suffers from needing to appeal to the Disney-kid demographic and be a cross-platform franchise hit, rather than just a great movie. But hey, it's funny to think we're now living in a world where today's kids need to be taught videogame appreciation, and that a movie like this one might familiarize them with the greats. I'll say again that Wreck-It-Ralph is a great kids movie - but it doesn't do quite enough to transcend its genre or its Disney trappings, to advance to that proverbial next-level of awesome.

My Grade: B+

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