Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.
I have a long connection to video games despite not having been an active gamer for a dozen years. I won’t go into it beyond saying that it was my career for 12 years or so as well. When Wreck-It Ralph showed up, I knew it would be a film that either pissed me off to no end or that I would love completely. It would depend entirely on how much respect was given the various source materials used to make the film. If it dealt with video games and video game culture without making it a joke, it could be the best thing going.
Thanks to smart writing, good characters, great use of classic video game characters, and a great deal of respect, Wreck-It Ralph is one of the great animated movies of the current decade. I went into this the first time with my fingers crossed and left the theater a believer. When people care about the story and not just about making a buck on their film, it shows, and Wreck-It Ralph was made by people who understand not only how to tell a story well, but who also know the culture they’re involving themselves in. Wreck-It Ralph was made by people who like video games.
Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the bad guy in a classic video game called Fix-It Felix Jr. In the game, Ralph smashes a building that the player/Felix (Jack McBrayer) repairs with a magic hammer. When the player wins a given level, Ralph is tossed off the roof by the people who dwell in the building. When the film starts, the game is celebrating its 30th anniversary in the arcade. But things are not so good for Ralph. Since he’s the bad guy, no one in the game likes him, and he lives in the dump off to the side of the building he smashes. He spends time now and then with a support group of other video game villains (where there’s a significant mistake), and is told that being a bad guy is his job and he needs to stick with it.
That night is the 30th Anniversary party inside the building, and Ralph is naturally not invited. He crashes the party, though, and after accidentally destroying the cake, he is told by the people in the building that if he can get a medal (Felix gets one for winning), they’ll let him live in the building. That night, Ralph sneaks into a military first-person shooter called Hero’s Duty, since the prize for completing the game is a gold medal. He does this despite the reality of the video game world, which includes the fact that dying outside of one’s own game means a permanent death.
However, when he tries to leave the game, he leaves with a Cy-Bug, one of Hero’s Duty’s monsters into a third game, a racing game called Sugar Rush. He’s certain that the Cy-Bug is dead (it isn’t), but he gets his medal stolen by Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a glitch character from the racing game. Vanellope uses Ralph’s medal to enter the nightly race, which will allow her to be a real character in the video game, something that none of the other characters want, particularly the game’s ruler, King Candy (Alan Tudyk).
Eventually, everyone shows up in Sugar Rush. Felix discovers what has happened to Ralph when he doesn’t show up as a new game begins. This takes him to Hero’s Duty where he meets Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), who is in charge of that game. The two go looking for Ralph and to kill any escaped Cy-Bugs, and during this, Felix becomes enamored of Calhoun. Ultimately, it all comes down the big race at the end, which happens just as a massive horde of Cy-Bugs erupts from under the ground and begins to destroy the Sugar Rush game. This is a bigger problem because as a glitch, Vanellope can’t leave the game.
So what does it get right? Quite a bit. One of the conceits of the movie world is that after the video arcade closes, characters can leave their games and enter other games. It’s safe because without a quarter being dropped into the box, the games themselves can’t actually start. Characters frequently congregate at the old Tapper machine. Ralph’s support group meets in the Pac-Man game, and when he leaves, Ralph is carrying the cherries. There are moments of characters from other games—Q*Bert is homeless since his game console has been removed. In fact, the only thing it gets wrong here is that it labels Zangief from Street Fighter II as a villain when he’s a playable character.
Mostly, though, it takes its audience seriously even though there are plenty of jokes here. The filmmakers realized that some of the kids and many of the adults in their audience would be on the lookout for hidden references and in-jokes for the gamer crowd, and there are plenty of them. No one likes being condescended to, and Wreck-It Ralph never condescends, not in the characters and not in the way the plot resolves. That resolution is set up beautifully and works out in a way that is both surprising and makes perfect sense.
It was additionally smart to create three completely new games for the action to take place in. Those games are their own unique worlds but are reminiscent of actual games. Fix-It Felix Jr. in particular is very similar to Donkey Kong, even in how the cabinet is designed.
I like this movie a lot. I liked it when I took my kids to see it and I liked it a lot today.
Why to watch Wreck-It Ralph: It gets the games right.
Why not to watch: If you don’t play games, you’ll miss a lot of the good jokes.