It’s only recently that video games have come into their own in terms of storytelling. Certainly there have been some diamonds in the rough, but back when that form of entertainment was just getting started, story would at times extend only as far as the mechanics of the game. “Shoot the invaders.” “Defend the cities from annihilation.” “Eat pills, avoid ghosts.” “Save the girl from the ape.” That sort of thing. And in the fictional game Fix-It Felix, Jr., the designated villain, the Wreck-It Ralph for whom this film is named, sums up the story in one sentence: “I’M GONNA WRECK IT!”
‘It’, in the context of the game, is the apartments built by the people of Niceland on what was once Ralph’s home. He wrecks the building, and the player of the game, controlling Fix-It Felix, Jr., fixes it. This has been going on for around 30 years, Ralph figures, every time a kid drops a quarter into the game. And now, Ralph wants to wreck something else: the way things are. Tired of being the bad guy all the time (despite the admonition of his support group that being bad is, in a way, good), he sets off through the arcade’s surge protectors and electrical cords to the shooter Hero’s Duty, to earn the sort of medal never given to bad guys like him. But what becomes of his game without its villain? What effect does he have on Hero’s Duty and, later, the saccharine kart racer Sugar Rush? And if your very nature, your very programming is to wreck things, can you really be heroic?
Parallels can be drawn between this movie and the seminal Pixar entry Toy Story: both involve playthings that are self-aware and define their worlds around the world outside inhabited by us human beings. Wreck-It Ralph goes a step further as it becomes clear that these characters have programming that they cannot escape. Ralph is a chaotic, destructive force by nature; Felix is a stand-up, white-bread, do-gooder no matter what; Sergeant Calhoun kicks ass and takes no prisoners; Vanellope von Schweetz can’t help but be a mix of annoying and endearing. Given this knowledge, it may seem on the surface that Ralph’s quest is doomed to fail, but the complexity of the character means that he’s just stubborn enough to go through with it despite the warnings and cautionary tales all around him.
One of the things you may not expect about Wreck-It Ralph is that, for all of its surprise cameos and wonderful send-up moments, it is ultimately about not just identity, but truth. The truth, for example, is that there is no Fix-It Felix, Jr without Wreck-It Ralph, no matter how much the Nicelanders may fear or despise him. I can think of more examples, but I don’t want to venture into spoiler territory, so I will say that just as much as Toy Story is about the inevitability of time, Wall-E examines the lengths to which we go when we love each other, and Up deals with the human capacity for ongoing adventure, Wreck-It Ralph tackles the pursuit of personal truth in each of us. The video game setting is perfect for this: just like Ralph feels he can’t escape his programming, we often feel we can’t escape our own circumstances.
This is, of course, all relevant in hindsight, but don’t let the deeper or broader meanings of the film put you off from taking your kids to see it, or seeing it yourself. Wreck-It Ralph moves very well without sparing story points, even if at times some of the dialog can get a bit expository. The fact that it’s being delivered by a talented and well-chosen cast really helps in this regard. John C. Reilly is no stranger to hapless guys who get in over their heads (Chicago, among others) and gives Ralph enough charm to make him likable without detracting from the inherent streak of destructiveness that’s right there in his name, while Jack McBrayer conveys the goodness of heart necessary for a tireless fixer like Felix while betraying some hidden depths of his own (“Why do I fix everything I touch??”). Sergeant Calhoun is uncompromising, even when it comes to herself, and as much as she might be representational or a parody of characters from Gears of War or something, Jane Lynch makes her come to life as far more than just an armored pin-up. And as much as some may not like Sarah Silverman, her normal attitude disappears into Vanellope, and all we see is a glitchy little girl with big dreams.
“I’m bad, and that’s good.
“I will never be good, and that’s not bad.
“There’s nobody I’d rather be than me.”
We are talking about a Disney movie, so while it takes off from an interesting premise and has plenty of depth and jokes to pull in the grown-ups, there is a through-line of identity and independence that’s pretty much the hallmark of Disney. However, the message it conveys is still relevant, and having Ralph be the main vehicle for it instead of a princess is an interesting change. That said, Calhoun and Vanellope are both solid female characters, ensuring there is literally something for everyone. With top-notch animation, fantastic set pieces, and yes, a slew of great send-ups for both my generation and those coming into gaming recently, Wreck-It Ralph is easily on par with the aforementioned Pixar entries.
Stuff I Liked: Plenty of cameos and shout-outs for fans of video games old and new. The consistency of characters’ animations, based mostly on their games. The use of the surge protector as “Game Central Station” complete with discernible sockets in the place of platforms & tunnels.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: As necessary as it was, the frequency with which the story had to stop to explain another aspect of the rules by which these characters exist bothered me a bit. It’s a minor nitpick, as the world-building worked and the story was still quite effective, but it’s the only one that really sticks out in my head.
Stuff I Loved: All four leads are fantastic, well-rounded, strong, and brilliantly voiced characters. The story works on multiple levels without any of the aforementioned expository dialog weighing it down. And is it odd that I want to play all of the games we saw in the film now?
Bottom Line: Wreck-It Ralph is a very well-balanced story that has just enough positive message conveyance for kids as well as jokes and moments of contemplation for adults, all wrapped up in an appealing retro arcade aesthetic that remains consistent and charming throughout. It’s worth your time to check out, even if you don’t have kids, and especially if you’re a kid at heart.