It might seem like measured praise at best, but Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph is easily the best video game movie ever made. Apparently all it took was a director keen enough to look beyond the glut of adaptation-ready games topping the charts these days, instead staring back over his shoulder at gaming’s arcade-based heyday, for what is a gleefully nostalgic film for adult gamers that will nevertheless enchant the uninitiated as well.
Rich Moore (who cut his teeth directing episodes of The Simpsons and then Futurama) helms this wonderfully post-modern animated film, concerned with the existential ennui of a video game bad guy named Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), who lives in a game called Fix-It Felix, Jr, and spends his working life smashing up buildings that the game’s titular hero, Felix, then fixes up with his trusty magic hammer. The problem is that even once the arcade closes, Ralph is still treated as a villain by the game’s denizens, while Felix is heralded as a hero. Sure that winning a gold medal will gain him acceptance with the game’s characters, Ralph ventures out into another game, Hero’s Duty, to try and win said medal, but kick-starts a chain reaction that threatens to have his home game be unplugged for good.
Watching Ralph at a so-called Bad-Anon support group, talking to countless actual video game villains – including the likes of Zangief, M. Bison, Bowser, Clyde, Kano and Dr. Robotnik – stands as one of the most brilliantly surreal moments in any film, animated or not, this year. Previously, to conceive of a major movie studio taking video games seriously enough to actually do their research and pay adequate respect to their lineage would have been considered ludicrous, yet here, gamers who have had to defend the integrity of their past-time, so poorly represented by films as it has been so far, finally get to have their day. While these cameos don’t render the material inaccessible to people who have never picked up a controller, the innumerable references to popular video games are likely to go down a massive treat with the gaming contingent.
Gamers are also likely to be tickled by the lithe manner in which the film simultaneously satirises and exalts various types of video game; the aforementioned Hero’s Duty, for instance, is clearly a portmanteau of popular games Halo and Call of Duty. Scribes Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee clearly have more than a superficial understanding of the video game medium, depicting the turning cogs of a first-person shooter in arresting detail, with the in-game characters having to run alongside a first-person machine, which depicts what the player on the other side of the arcade will see. It’s also here that the visuals really pop, and as such, if Hero’s Duty were a real game, one can imagine that most gamers would be interested in playing it. Particular credit here has to go to Jane Lynch who, as Hero’s Duty’s steely protagonist, Sgt. Calhoun, is clearly having a blast, and gets a back story that is, quite appropriately, hilariously over-the-top. During Ralph’s interactions with other arcade characters, there are also some mightily clever touches, most notably that the animations are intentionally bad, reflecting their decades-old existence.
The other big game we see in Wreck-It Ralph is Sugar Rush, a kid-friendly, even saccharine racing game – clearly modelled on Mario Kart – in which the vehicles are all made of candy. Sarah Silverman is superbly cast as Vanellope von Schweetz, a glitch within the game’s infrastructure who as a result cannot hop between games in the arcade like any “legitimate” characters can. She enters into a partnership with Ralph to try and save his game, forming the film’s emotional core as a result; each wants to change their situation and is to an extent dependent on the other.
With all of its inventiveness both visual and thematic, it would still be easy for the film to have a wonky framework, but fortunately, that’s as fiendishly intelligent as everything else in the film; a great deal of thought has been put into giving everything an explanation audiences can buy within this context. The core rules are perhaps most impressive, that when a game is “unplugged”, its residents become homeless vagrants, that after-hours, characters are free to travel to other games, and that if you die in another game, you’re dead for real. The transition between the real world of the arcade and “Game Central” as it is called – that’s the hub between all the games, a station of sorts – has the potential to be tricky, but on the whole it’s a seamless blend. Sure, it’s a tad strange that all the characters essentially have the same sort of look when jumping between games – at one point, Fix-It Felix remarks Sgt. Calhoun’s high-def look despite the fact the animation quality of the two is not dissimilar at all – but this is clearly a conscious aesthetic choice, even if it would have made more sense to make Felix and Ralph look a little shabbier.
Right up to its exhilarating final race set-piece, this is a stunningly rendered, hilarious animated film with invention to spare in every aspect of its creation. It looks fantastic, sounds great, and never reduces itself to a cynical slew of smart if exclusionary video game gags; the relationship between Ralph and Vanellope gives it an unexpected emotional edge, and elevates the film – and indeed, Disney – to the same standard by which we typically judge Pixar fare (who have conversely spent the last two years letting us down). Easily the best animated film in a year full of crushing disappointments, Wreck-It Ralph is a heart-warming ode to retro gaming that will enrapture gamers and pretty much everyone else along the way.
Wreck-It Ralph is out now in the US and in UK cinemas February 15th, 2013.
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