Wreck-It Ralph (review)

Wreck-It Ralph green light

I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Best videogame movie ever! Not that there was a high bar: movies based on games tend to replicate the experience of playing a game as if we were watching over another player’s shoulder while entirely missing the point that that’s not much fun. We don’t like watching games — we like playing games. We have a relationship with games that exists beyond the point at which play in any given game stops. We have a relationship with gaming.

Wreck-It Ralph gets this. It is not beholden to any real game, which smartly sets it free from fan expectations and desires about what a story based on a classic 80s arcade game such as the invented Fix-It Felix should be about. (Though, ironically, movies based on games are never really about their games, either; they just steal the skeleton of a plot from the games without acknowledging their interactive roots at all.) What Ralph is beholden to is gamers’ love of games, and of the multiverse of games that we dwell in when we play. It acknowledges how much games have changed in the past 30 years, by giving us glorious pastiches of games across that span of years, and how that has only deepened our love of gaming. It is bursting with nostalgia, sometimes to the point of indignation. (Ralph encounters a homeless Q-bert. The ignominy! I frakkin’ loved Q-bert. How can I play Q-bert again and give that squidgy little guy a home again?) Ralph wouldn’t work at all if gamers weren’t a fun-flexible bunch who, while we might have our favorite games, happily spread our game time around to myriad diverse electronic entertainments. Ralph wouldn’t work if it couldn’t rest assured that we’re gonna grasp all its many in-jokes and references.

So we have Wreck-It Ralph, who is the “villain” in Fix-It Felix in almost precisely the same way that the gorilla is in Donkey Kong, its clear inspiration. After 30 years of trying to knock down an apartment building — called, with spot-on retro cartoonishness, Niceland — and terrorizing the occupants, only to have “hero” Fix-It Felix repair Ralph’s damage with his golden hammer and organize the tenants in tossing Ralph from the roof, Ralph has had enough. It’s one thing to play a role, which Ralph is proud of playing well, but quite another for his “castmates” to ignore him “offstage,” as they do. Ralph (voiced with immense personality by John C. Reilly: The Dictator, Carnage) is not the brightest icon on the screen, and he’s rather clumsy with his freakishly oversized hamfists. But he has a good heart, and he’s lonely. So he sets off on a quest to win a medal like the one Felix always wins so his gamemates will appreciate him more.

It’s not the best conceived plan ever, but Ralph’s sweet, clueless desperation is part of his charm, and his tragedy. Ralph’s journey takes him into two other games: Hero’s Duty, a gritty military SF first-person-shooter, and Sugar Rush, a literally candy-colored, Japanese-pop-esque racing game. (All the consoles in this particular arcade are traversable in clever ways that I will leave you to discover — among the immense pleasures of this thoroughly enjoyable film are the many ingenious touches that bind it into a cohesive world. Power-up to TV director Rich Moore, making his feature debut, and screenwriters Phil Johnston, who wrote the wonderful Cedar Rapids, and newbie Jennifer Lee.) The visual contrasts between these two domains — and between both of them and Ralph’s chunky pixellated 8-bit world — represent some of the most extraordinary computer animation yet: any one of them alone would be marvelous, its ingenuity a joy to watch unfurl, but to see such deeply different styles done so well in a single film and interact in such fun ways is amazing. It’s a feast for the eye and for the fannish brain. As is, indeed, the notion of getting characters from such wildly antithetic games to meet and interact: Ralph must contend both with Duty’s tough-as-nails Sergeant Calhoun (the voice of Jane Lynch: The Three Stooges, Paul) and Rush’s snarky little-girl wannabe racer Vanellope (the voice of Sarah Silverman: School for Scoundrels, School of Rock). It’s a conceit that owes a lot more to how fans think of games and gaming than reproducing a first-person-shooter onscreen and calling it “a videogame movie” ever could.

Ralph is, on the surface, similar to the Toy Story films, in that the videogame “actors” are fully aware of their responsibility to the players of their games, but that relationship, between the toy and the person who plays with it, is not the primary focus here. Buzz and Woody define themselves by their person, Andy. Ralph, Calhoun, and Vanellope are defined by their programming, and Ralph’s quest — as well as challenges thrown at Calhoun and Vanellope — is about fighting destiny… or, actually, discovering that what you think is your destiny isn’t necessarily your fate, and that much of how we see life is dependent on our perspective. (I think Obi-Wan Kenobi had something to say about that, too.) But it’s more like The Matrix, in more ways than just the one that has to do with computer code: we may not be more than the sum of our pixels, but the sum of our pixels may be far greater than we realize.

Maybe this is the secret to making a videogame movies that works: give us characters we actually care about having an adventure that we actually care about the outcome of. (I know: That’s the secret to making any movie work. Yet some filmmakers, especially those making videogame movies, seem to think this isn’t as important as throwing cool levels at us.) There’s no triumph in leveling up unless it takes us to a level that changes what’s come before, and not a level that’s just about more monsters. And so, ironically, the bits of Ralph that do ape gameplay — as in the big race in Sugar Race that will determine Vanellope’s fate — are supremely compelling and suspenseful and, unlike any other videogame movie I’ve ever seen, make me itch to get into an arcade. Sugar Rush doesn’t exist, but I wanna play it!

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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