In film and culture there have been fictional characters that people will always develop a certain amount of nostalgia for. They are strong, captivating figures housed within a story that can easily capture the imagination of viewers both new and old. Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph takes a look at how the still relatively young (compared to film, music, and literature) culture of video gaming has spawned similar characters, while simultaneously looking at just how little that we know about them and their sometimes threadbare or convenient backstories. It’s essentially a Toy Story knock off for gamers in a lot of ways, blending the old with the new into a clever and funny, if somewhat dragging package.
Tired of his job in the game Fix-It Felix Jr. wrecking buildings and being thrown off the roof of an apartment building day in and day out by a goody two shoes hammer carrying daddy’s boy (Jack McBrayer), the video game baddies Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) decides to strike out in the gaming world on his own. After not being invited to a 30th anniversary party for his own game, he sneaks off to the realm of Hero’s Duty, a bug-hunt modern day first person shooter to steal a medal that would essentially herald him as a hero. After stealing the medal and potentially unleashing hell in the arcade, Ralph bumbles his way into a brightly coloured racing game called Sugar Rush where he strikes up a reluctant friendship with the outcast glitchy avatar (Sarah Silverman) who swiped his medal.
There’s a lot going on in Rich Moore’s film, which at times leads it to feel rushed and overstuffed at the same time. The set-up of an old school arcade as an interlinked world where everyone’s favourite characters from the past and present can meet up and hang out after hours is cleverly designed and interestingly laid out. The fact that so many characters from different systems and platforms show up (although with a somewhat unsurprising lack of actual Nintendo branded creations) makes it fun to watch right off the bat.
Then once the plot kicks in, that world gets left behind almost entirely once Ralph makes his way to Hero’s Duty, which really only amounts to about 10 minutes of screen time and only there to introduce Jane Lynch’s seargeant character (and eventual love interest for Felix) and for a plot device to set up for the grand finale. By this point, the movie has still only lasted less than half an hour.
Despite the inventiveness and fun that the Sugar Rush section of the film holds, the film spends almost the entirety of its running time here, often going over points and character traits that have already been established. Some clever, witty writing and the effortless chemistry between Reilly and Silverman goes a long way, even when you just want the movie to get on with the point. For a section of the film that’s clearly catering to the youngest members of the audience, it certainly feels slower paced than the first half of the film aimed at older crowds who can handle the pacing. It’s a strange choice that throws the momentum of the film off a bit.
Still, for gamers this is kind of a wonderland of visual delights from how everyone in Ralph’s world aside from himself and Felix can only move in herky-jerky motions or how crossing over between games is referenced as “going turbo.” Hero’s Duty is an amalgamation of pretty much every popular FPS crossed with Starship Troopers, and Sugar Rush is that game at the arcade that almost always gets inexplicably played all the time by older kids and teens instead of the crowd it was actually made for. The retro character cameos are essentially just creatively placed bits of product placement, but they’re a lot more welcome than the actually open product placement once the film gets to Sugar Rush.
The voice cast all brings their best to the material and everyone comes perfectly cast for their roles. Reilly has mastered playing the wonderful doofus, Lynch gets to play the shell shocked hardass who was “programmed with the most tragic backstory ever,” and McBrayer gets some of the film’s sweetest moments from being just a really nice and sympathetic guy caught in a crazy situation he doesn’t fully understand because he can’t fix it. The real standouts here, however, are Silverman, who does the annoying and equally precious child thing so well that it’s shocking no one hired her to do it before this, and Alan Tudyk, as the nutty King Candy, ruler of the candy coated nightmare Ralph has to escape from.
Visually the animation is pretty stunning and well thought out with a clear and thoughtful eye towards how games are designed and played, even if Sugar Rush seems far more detailed than it needs to be, which at times creates sometimes unexplainable plot holes. (Like why does a racing game have pits of quicksand or tree branches that can sometimes give way if you hop on the wrong one?) There’s also a pretty nifty twist towards the end and entering the third act there’s even a tiny bit of tragedy to propel us into the climactic final level of the film.
Overall, Wreck-It Ralph blends the creative with the familiar fairly well on a thematic level, but in terms of plotting and characterization it isn’t anything audiences haven’t seen plenty of times before. This makes it oddly perfect for a film that ultimately wants to have a short discussion about nostalgia anyway. But once again, that’s also been done before. It’s highly entertaining, if not entirely groundbreaking or fresh.