MOVIE REVIEW: Wreck-It Ralph



Getting young kids to like a movie is easy.  Give them shiny objects, bright colors, a few funny lines, someone to root for, someone to root against, and keep things moving.  That's the simple and efficient recipe.  Quality isn't necessary.  Follow the recipe and they'll buy it.

However, getting the theater-going parents and adults with children in tow to like a kids’ movie is a little harder.  Quality, in this case, matters.  They need to be won over more than the young people.  Personally and (while writing here and being a former teacher) professionally, I think there is a "silver bullet" that enables adults to enjoy the kid films they are subjected to watching over and over again.

That clincher is playing to their nostalgia.  Simply put, parents and adults were once kids themselves.  Adults will engage and connect with a story if it provokes their own childhood memories, joys, and recollections.  The Shrek series played to our mocking sarcasm of always hearing the same old fairy tales and bedtime stories.  The Toy Story series tugged at our affinity to tactile and imaginary joy of real toys and not a iPad or television.

In 2012-going-on-2013, the parental crowd of thirty-somethings and forty-somethings of today's kids grew up in a different childhood than our parents.  They are the video game generation.  They grew up more with Super Mario Bros. and Pac-Man, than Candyland and Chutes and Ladders.  The nostalgia required to play to that new audience of parents is nailed by Disney's new animated feature, Wreck-It Ralph.  With deep creativity and homages to video games new and old, Wreck-It Ralph is a great deal of fun for all ages.

Borrowing a few shades of story color from Pixar’s Monsters Inc. and Toy Story crayon box, Wreck-It Ralph takes us to a creative imaginary world within arcade games.  After a day of taking in quarters and performing their repetitious roles and routines, the video game characters inside the big boxes at Litwick’s Arcade are free to go about their business and visit each other.  Using mock train lines through the nest of extension cords and crossing paths at a surge protector “Game Central Station,” everyone is connected.  This fun concept and setting is easily the strength of the movie and I wish there was more to show than fast transitions.

It is in this commiserating that we meet Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) from the classic (and fictional) 8-bit game Fix-It Felix, Jr. at a support group for video game villains.  Sharing his feelings among Street Fighter villains, Pac-Man ghosts, Bowzer, zombies, and demons, Ralph tells us his story of living in the dump next door for 30 years while the hero of his game, Fix-It Felix, Jr. (voiced by Jack McBrayer), is the beloved toast of the game’s citizens.  It’s gotten to the point that Ralph is tired of being the bad guy and wants to earn the medal of a winner like Felix does.  He gets so turned off by the constant hate that he runs away from Fix-It Felix, Jr. to earn his own medal.

In going “game-jumping” and a little “turbo,” Ralph ends up in Hero’s Duty, a high-definition first-person shooter, not unlike a Halo/Call of Duty amalgam.  After stealing the uniform of a machine gun soldier at the Tapper bar game, Ralph is out of his element following the barking commands of bossy female Sergeant Calhoun (voiced by Jane Lynch) against the deadly Cy-Bugs.  Still, he earns his medal before escaping and crashing landing in Sugar Rush, Bratz-y kart racing video game of sugary confectionery cars, castles, and characters.  The gum Ralph steps into there is getting involved with a broken “glitch” outcast character by the name of Vanellope von Schweetz (voiced by Sarah Silverman) who snatches his medal.

Meanwhile, the trouble with Ralph leaving his post on Fix-It Felix, Jr. is that his home game is now considered “out of order.”  If the arcade owner pulls the plug for good, everyone is out of work and homeless (how tough-economically-timely).  That sends the heroic Felix out to bring Ralph back and save everyone’s livelihood.  Soon, he teams up with Sergeant Calhoun, who’s hunting a Cy-bog that may have escaped Hero’s Duty with Ralph.

All of these tangents send the film in too many directions at times.  The opening set-up and design of this whole world-within-a-world of Wreck-It Ralph is brilliant, but the movie really loses its flow and energy when the plot moves to Sugar Rush and the plight of Vanellope, her bonding with Ralph as a fellow outcast, and their clash with the corrupt King Candy (voiced by Alan Tudyk).  Like I mentioned earlier, there’s not enough fun to be had with all of the connected characters and games we recognize.  Still, in its defense, how many bad kids’ movies have we seen that have a shoestring of a plot compared to something this dense and original? 

While I can’t argue with the in-house creativity to create Fix-It Felix, Jr., Hero’s Duty, and Sugar Rush from scratch as living video games peers (and real playable games on the movie’s website) to familiar titles, call me greedy and picky anyway.  Even though I’m sure the many familiar characters were just meant to be fun cameos, I would have rather seen Ralph mix it up with the crews and worlds of Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter, Super Mario Bros., etc. over Sugar Rush. That would have been more fun than a ginormous dose of Sarah Silverman’s voice work.  If you want a real video game nerdgasm, go see out Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World.

Even with that selfish criticism and soapbox two cents, Wreck-It Ralph is still a lot of fun.  For me, t's not as good as Brave from earlier this year or Tangled) from two years ago, but there’s a bunch to look at and gasp at in 3D.  It's very much worthy to be Disney's 52nd animated feature.  You will chase the fleeting appearances of familiar video game characters and be pointing at the screen just like the kids next to you do.  While I knocked Silverman’s voice work a little just now, she fits the role and is part of a really solid cast.  Reilly, McBrayer, and Lynch are all spot-on with their tone for each of their characters.  To add more pun, they are game to “game.”  Even if Wreck-It Ralph is off a little in pace and organization, the movie has creativity, originality, and spirit to spare.  It’s a nice piece of entertainment for this 2012 holiday season.

LESSON #1: JUST BECAUSE YOU ARE  A “BAD GUY” DOESN’T MEAN YOU ARE A BAD GUY—The strong wisdom in Street Fighter Zangief’s thighs… I mean… brain is immeasurable, as evidenced by this villain therapy line.  While this has kind of been done before in Despicable Me, villains are people too and sometimes they are just doing their job.  They might be labeled evil, but, deep down, still have feelings too.  They deserve equal treatment and rights.  Sure, that may work here in a PG-rated Disney movie, but tell that to every Bond villain or John McClane-defeated terrorist.

LESSON #2: GIVE THE GAMER WHAT THEY WANT—While Wreck-It Ralph takes place in a highly creative behind-the-scenes setting of video games old and new, this lesson covers the human customers that make these games possible.  Without people pumping quarters, these games and their worlds wouldn’t exist.  Also, all of these characters exist to serve and entertain.  If they don’t, they are replaced and forgotten.  Video games, both in the film and in real-life, have to give the customer what they want, match their ever-changing trends and tastes, and continuously deliver reliable entertainment.  The real classics that never get old have done this from the start.

LESSON #3: GOING WITH YOUR GUT—You have to love when instinct or conscience takes over our decision-making.  There’s a personal satisfaction when we we “stick to our guns” and/or “go with our gut” on a big decision.  The tricky thing is, and Ralph learns this, that sometimes our gut is wrong and it’s a defeating feeling.  Something might initially feel so true and right and then become wrong after things change or get re-examined through a different lens or perspective.  It’s never too late to either go with your gut or realize that your gut is wrong.