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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

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!

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Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
US/Can release: Nov 2 2012
UK/Ire release: Feb 15 2013

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated PU: power up!
MPAA: rated PG for some rude humor and mild action/violence
BBFC: rated PG (contains mild violence)

viewed in 3D
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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

  • innpchan

    “Fun-agnostic”?  We question the existence of fun?

    Hmm, come to think of it, I -have- played some games like that.  Movies, too.

    And no Love for the Tudyk?  Someone check that woman’s coat!     ^_-

  • dwa4

    Saw it this weekend and had a very good time…worth the admission price.  Not usually a 3D fan..saw it in 2d but there were several parts that likely work very well in 3D and will probably do that with our child that was not able to be with us the first night.

    INteresting comparison to Toy Story and other Pixar offerrings….as Sheldon would say..it has fun differently..a different flavor and tempo than those even with Lasseter’s input.  (Makes me wonder how different yet good the subsequent Star Wars movies could be somewhat removed from Lucas’ hands.)

    When the fun is done and the overanalysis sets in, it made me think about contentment vs discontent and acceptance vs rebellion..not necessarily with the stereotypical ending.

    I must have spent my gameplaying days in a different arcade.  Wished I could have seen more references from asteroids, space invaders, joust,  missile command.  Still…so good to see a great story make it to the screen. 

  • “Fun-agnostic”?  We question the existence of fun?

    Hmm, that’s not quite what I meant. Changed it to “fun-flexible”… though that’s not quite right either. *sigh*

  • Yes! My daughter and I just saw it this afternoon, and thought it was wonderful. Calhoun and Vanellope are fantastic characters, neither of them in the Disney Princess mold (something that, with regard to Vanellope, the film actually makes an explicit point of, near the end). And the animated short preceding the film, “Paperman,” is lovely.

    Ralph wouldn’t work if it couldn’t rest assured that we’re gonna grasp all its many in-jokes and references.

    I don’t know. I appreciated the references, but my daughter is not at all conversant with videogame history and still enjoyed the movie enormously. I think the story stands on its own.

    we may not be more than the sum of our pixels, but the sum of our pixels may be far greater than we realize.

    “If we are merely matter intricately assembled, is this really demeaning? If there’s nothing here but atoms, does that make us less or does that make matter more?” — Carl Sagan

  • Anne-Kari

    Bluejay, I just saw this with my own daughter and I agree with every one of your points here.  Also loved “Paperman”, btw.

    And thank you for the Carl Sagan quote :)

  • Brian

    Saw it this weekend with my niece, and we had a great time, even with the few clunky bits of the game. 

    *grins*  And I would love to have Jane Lynch do a similar role in an actual video game as this one (my niece immediately loved her as well…reminded her of her female persona in the Mass Effect series.  Say what one might about BioWare/EA, but at least they are getting better about including female avatars in their newer games.) 

  • JoshDM

    Of note, it is my understanding that many movies based on modern video games were made by directors whose every intention was to deliberately lose money due to laws of the originating countries.  Deliberate bombs.

  • FSugino

    Hardcore old-time gamers will appreciate the kill screen that appears after the credits.

  • RogerBW

    Perhaps one might say “the filmmakers had the guts not to explain every reference” – if the story works on its own terms, the references are bonus material for people who get them, but can simply sail past people who don’t.

    I’m really glad about this one – from the trailer, it looked like the animated equivalent of a film where the cast is clearly having fun.

  • “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.”
    Also the secret of good game design.

  • Springtime for Hitler!

  • Good point!

  • innpchan

    How about “Polyfunious”? “Controller-easy”? “Code-fickle”?

  • MaryAnn, there is a “Wreck-It Ralph” videogame out there. (I’m pretty sure Q-bert is a playable character too.)

  • The staff at Disney actually created the game “Fix It Felix Jr.” as part of the promo for the series, and it’s actually a very strong 80’s style arcade game. 
    I was very impressed with how “real” the games they made for the film felt; to the point where I  was actually a bit surprised that Root Beer Tapper was an actual arcade game rather than one they made for the plot. 

  •  only the ones made by Uwe Boll.

  • Ladymoxee

    My best friend and I saw this last week, and both of us adored it. We found it refreshing that Ralph was not necessarily one of those “misunderstood”, “gentle giant” types. He’s temperamental, he’s destructive, he’s not a “nice guy”. He doesn’t want a hero’s medal because he wants to be a hero. He wants one for selfish reasons, not out of some innate goodness within his programming that’s driving him to prove himself to his game-mates. After all, he’s a video game character, so he was developed to be a certain way, and not really evolve as a human character might. All of the characters in the film retain their video-gameness in this way. They’re not multi-layered and deep because they can’t be! But the fact that they can still speak to audiences (my friend and I teared up at some scenes) is truly a testament to the writers of the movie. Ralph teaches us that we can love ourselves and understand that we all have our place in the world, even if there are aspects of our personalities that are less than savoury. Our flaws make us who we are, and trying to undo them can have drastic consequences. 

  • I took my son to see this on Saturday. It was a bit of fun, but far from perfect.
    Being a gamer of 30+ years I enjoyed all the references. I also thought the voice actors did a pretty darn good job.  I was a bit bummed that we didn’t get to see some other game worlds, though. I got a bit more bummed when I realized that the game would be stuck in Sugar Rush for the rest of it’s running time. It was all very creative, but I would have preferred it not spend so much time in one world.
    Paperman was ridiculously sweet. I loved the animation style.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Actually this movie was quite good–even if you don’t really like video games.

    Of course, I was a bit surprised to see John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman in a kid’s movie, but they pulled it off better than I expected.

    And who knew Ms. Silverman could be so convincing as a young MaryAnn Johanson? ;-)

  • bronxbee

     i was never a gamer (except the occasional ms. pac man) but I loved the story line and the voice actors… I wouldn’t
    consider this a ‘kids’” movie even if it it is animated.

  • Tonio Kruger

    True. This isn’t really a kids movie but it’s one of the few movies I’ve seen this year that both kids and adults are likely to enjoy. And it’s certainly more intriguing than many American animated films which are allegedly aimed at adults.

  • What makes this not a kids’ movie? I’m more inclined to say that this is an excellent example of what a kids’ movie can be.

  • RogerBW

    Like MarkyD, I could have done with more different worlds, or even more time in Hero’s Duty – but I did particularly like the fact that there was never an inside/outsider interaction scene, where a human player’s actions were key to some in-game-world resolution. Nobody outside the game-world suspects its existence, and that’s the way it should be.
    I’ll confess I could have done with something from Calhoun about the unrealistic female body shape, but hey, can’t have everything. And there was at least the splendid sequence when the escape pod was first flying through Sugar Rush.

  • I don’t mind Calhoun’s unrealistic body shape because the men are unrealistic too.

  • And who knew Ms. Silverman could be so convincing as a young MaryAnn Johanson? ;-)

    Really? Not sure what to make of that…

  • There was a press screening of Ralph in London that featured that console.

    I was not invited to that screening. *grrr*

  • fredmb

    Sarah Silverman helped create one of the most classic cartoon characters of All Time!
    It’s a movie i can watch multiple times and continue to get something out of it.

  • amanohyo

    Finally watched this – my snide comments about the trailer were completely misplaced. This is a good movie, clearly made by people with fond memories of spending many an afternoon in their local arcades (the different styles of animation/”frame rates” for the characters of different eras is great touch). I was worried it would be nonstop references and cameos, but the script stands on its own. Silverman and Reilly are outstanding – both give their characters a fullness that’s lacking in most “grown up” video game movies. The final lines are incredibly saccharine, yet somehow Reilly’s sincerity pulls you in and makes it work.

    I would have liked more lines from Lynch, maybe a mini character arc that didn’t end in a predictable coupling. That’s my only real gripe. The climax is also a bit of an “homage” to Kung Fu Hustle which was cool, and the end credit sequence shoryuken’ed me right in the nostalgia.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Er, it was meant to be a compliment. As well as an acknowledgement on my part that you tend to have a special fondness for young female characters who are not in the traditional Disney Princess mode.

    Or maybe I’m just misinterpreting the various hints you have given in various reviews that described what you were like as a young girl. If so, my bad.

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