Side Quest: Wreck-It Ralph

This is the first of two film-related blogs I plan on writing over the next few weeks. This is a straightforward review of Wreck-It Ralph; the second will be a little more esoteric.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is the first film I remember seeing in theaters. “Remember” might be too strong a term, though; I had just turned four, so “retain a hazy, dreamlike vision of colors and music informed by subsequent viewings” might be more accurate. Still, I’m positive I was quite taken with it, as we all were (and are) taken with Disney’s squashy, stretchy hyper-realities, these simple fables that are less movies than canvases for the ceaseless imagination of youth. (I’m still close enough to those years to remember that when your kid wants to watch The Lion King VHS for the twentieth time, it’s less about the story told on-screen and more about the world of possibility it illuminates.)

Still, even at the tender age of four, there was a moment in the film that struck me as totally inauthentic. It’s near the story’s endgame, when vain, buffoonish Gaston decides to get the heroine Belle’s father locked in an insane asylum unless she agrees to marry him. He explains this plan to the asylum’s owner, a decrepit old man who couldn’t scream “shriveled up incarnation of pure humbug evil” more if the animators actually just rotoscoped in one of the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts. His response to Gaston? “Oh, that is despicable. I love it!”

Again, I was four years old watching this. I was not far removed from mastering the use of a toilet, and the thought of Santa Claus being a phony probably hadn’t yet crossed my mind. But the fact that this guy, this literal cartoon, was completely aware he was the “villain” of the film sat completely wrong with me. Looking back, I envy myself for living in ignorance of sadism and people just being total bastards for no reason. But also, from a storytelling perspective, I totally get where I was coming from, in my own simple-minded way: villains should not know they are villains. They shouldn’t desire to be bad; they should desire a goal that stands in the protagonist’s way. Even Darth Vader and the Emperor, who channel the power of the fucking “Dark Side,” probably wouldn’t call themselves “despicable.” Power-hungry? Sure. Hate-filled and uncompromising? Most definitely. But even in the black and white world of Star Wars, the villains have genuine goals beyond just being dicks.

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What’s endearing about old-school video game baddies is how far removed they are from the Beauty and the Beast Insane Asylum Guy school of evil. Goombas and the Pac-Man‘s ghosts’ villainy is entirely circumstantial; they’re bad because they stand in the way of the players’ goal, but it’s really hard to imagine they particularly have it in for Mario or Pac-Man. Obviously, this is because these games aren’t narrative; why give an enemy any more motivation than pure opposition when the goal of the game is simply to move from left to right? The instant games tried tackling bigger stories, you got the “good versus evil” eyeroll of, say, Link versus Ganondorf. But while it’s bad storytelling (nonexistent, even), I always liked the old games where enemies seemed incidental, more props than villains. In a completely unintentional way, it made the whole thing weird and morally grey, as if any character you had to crush could just be the schlubby, workaday henchmen from The Venture Bros.

So imagine my delight that someone made a movie about this exact concept, and the force behind it is no less than Disney itself. Wreck-It Ralph might just be the most celebratory movie made about any subject ever; James Franco could make a movie where he stares at himself in the mirror and sings “To Know Him Is to Love Him” over and over, and that movie would not have a tenth the love for James Franco that Ralph has for video games. If that affection wasn’t so organic, so perfectly lived in and specifically nerdy, one might accuse the filmmakers of going overboard to prove they really “got it” and atone for the sins of all video game movies past.

The film’s much-discussed game references definitely do their part, and while there’s nothing as blissfully jaw-dropping as the Donald and Daffy piano feud in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, they generally range from clever nods to truly funny jokes for the in-crowd. But the real reason you know this is a movie by game lovers is how they treat the whole concept of being a video game character. One of the trickiest hurdles in creating a narrative game is that — unlike having characters portrayed by an actor or animator in film — the cast is limited by their coding and artificial intelligence. So every game character, from Donkey Kong to Mass Effect (or from Fix-It Felix to Hero’s Duty), follows a pretty strict rulebook for what they can and can’t do. In Wreck-It Ralph, the characters treat their games like they’re their jobs, and for anyone who’s ever wondered why a Koopa hangs out in the same spot his whole life just waiting for you to step on him, there’s a thrill in seeing that odd bit of design so cleverly explained. It’s a hilarious conceit in itself, but it also heightens the film’s usual “Just Be Yourself” Disney-isms by preaching them in a world so fit for that message.

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Wreck-It Ralph owes quite a bit to Toy Story, and not just because they both deal with the secret world of off-hours playthings. It’s hard to remember what mainstream American animation was like before Toy Story. It altered the entire landscape, not just through its shiny computer wizardry, but also through what sort of stories you could tell in a family-friendly cartoon. It was the last nail in the coffin of Disney’s “Insane Asylum Guy” syndrome; here was an animated movie where the crux of the conflict was not an evil witch or wizard, but the characters’ insecurities and flaws. Sure, Woody and Buzz Lightyear face outside obstacles, and there are plenty of chase scenes and turns of fortune, but the most involving sections of the film are these two characters dealing with their relationship and helping the other understand his place in the world. Disney films before this had character-driven plotting, of course, but they too often cheaped out, relying on cliche or an unearned morality lesson to tie together things that otherwise still felt emotionally messy. Toy Story almost immediately took a scythe to all the good-versus-evil nonsense, all the pedestrian musical numbers desperately attempting to eke out a fraction of the late Howard Ashman’s incomparable wit. One of my favorite film critics, David Thomson (whose book Have You Seen…? was a huge inspiration for this blog; check it out, it’s great), argues that Pixar’s worldview is still too close to the dunderheaded optimism of the Disney films that preceded them. There might be truth to that, but I would argue that at least Pixar is optimistic about individuals, about the ability to look inward and change ourselves for the better. “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” wouldn’t make my top fifty Randy Newman songs, but it still isn’t “Zip a Dee Fucking Doo Dah.” It is, at the very least, about people.

But nothing gold can stay, and like with anything truly innovative, Toy Story‘s great leaps forward have been emulated and corrupted by everyone in the animation game, morphed into the cynicism of Shrek or Ice Age or any of the cringe-worthy trailers that play before Wreck-It Ralph. Even Pixar is beginning to struggle with the weight of its own magic touch; their latest, Brave, lacked even the kinetic little-kid enthusiasm of the much derided Cars franchise. (Their first female protagonist deserved better.) So Wreck-It Ralph appears in an interesting (and unenviable) position where the Pixar blueprint is the only game in town, but also showing its age. Ralph doesn’t innovate the formula, but it streamlines it, giving it a visceral zing and pop that never sags or slows down. It’s not the best of these films since the near-perfect Toy Story 2, but it’s certainly the tightest, harkening back to that 1999 landmark’s winning blend of economic storytelling and unadulterated heart. Wreck-It Ralph does not waste a single movement; everything pays off to the point where the script should come packaged with Syd Field’s how-to books. It knows that we know what sort of movie it is, and it subverts that through its speediness and impressive juggling of plot devices, even as it zooms toward a finale as inevitable as the finish line on which it is set. Even its stupid poop jokes pay off in the heartwarming ending.

Wreck-It Ralph begins with an homage to the eyebrow-raising plots of early Japanese video games so spot-on that you wonder if Shigeru Miyamoto ghostwrote it. Ralph is the bad guy in Fix-It Felix, Jr., an arcade game where he’s forced to live in a garbage dump and get thrown off an apartment building several times a day. It’s a hilarious, arbitrarily cruel fate, one that only makes sense in the logic of video games. Ralph tries his best to deal with his lot in life; he goes to a bad guy support group and drowns his sorrows at the Tapper bar, but when the other characters in his game can’t even conjure up the neighborly decency to invite him to Fix-It Felix‘s thirtieth anniversary party, he decides to win their respect in a game called Hero’s Duty. The film has great fun imagining this klutzy 8-bit monster running around in a Halo-esque bug blaster before shipping him off to a candy-themed go-cart game for the remainder of the film. To say much more would ruin the joy of the plotting, of watching all the pieces snap into place in ways better seen for yourself. (Some of the film’s best gags become legitimate plot points and twists, and they’re all incredibly satisfying.)

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The things that are truly great in Wreck-It Ralph — structure and design — are actually similar to the things that are great in the best video games. The art direction must be seen to be believed. There is not a moment of this film I do not enjoy looking at, so crammed with lush detail and visual information that people will still be uncovering hidden jokes in it months from now. All three of the major games could not be more spot-on, from the way everything moves one pixel at a time in Fix-It Felix (even most of the people!) to the Hero’s Duty tower that challenges Half-Life 2‘s citadel for otherworldly menace. (Speaking of Hero’s Duty, I would be so much more invested in games like that if they were populated with characters half as endearingly designed as Jane Lynch’s Sgt. Calhoun. And if any of them could manage a line half as goofily self-aware as, “A selfish man is like a mangy dog chasing a cautionary tale,” that would be a plus, too.) These are worlds we have not seen on film before, fresh and inventive and a thrill to visit.

Not that the film doesn’t work emotionally. There’s no moment as heart-wrenching as that first stretch of Up or anything, but the cast is so endearing and so perfectly voiced that it’s easy to get caught up in their struggles. (As annoying as the over-saturation of celebrity voices in animated films might be, when they’re as fresh as this lot, I say bring it on. I’d much rather hear John C. Reilly’s perfectly mumbly moaning than Billy West doing his Fry voice for the eightieth time. Also, as much as I love the whole cast, perhaps the most plainly impressive vocal performance is Alan Tudyk, completely unrecognizable and doing a spot-on Ed Wynn impression as the nefarious King Candy.)

This is no surprise when you consider the film’s director, Rich Moore, was the guiding hand behind some of the most perfect Simpsons episodes (and thus, most perfect episodes of television) of all time. Wreck-It Ralph is more openly the work of a Simpsons veteran than, say, Brad Bird’s feature output; there are the expert pop culture riffs, obviously, but also a similar push and pull between sarcasm and big, dumb open-heartedness. (Two of Moore’s best episodes — the breakneck, anarchic “Marge Versus the Monrail” and subtle, character-driven “Lisa’s Substitute” — are perhaps most emblematic of this yin and  yang dynamic.) I was never surprised by where Wreck-It Ralph took me emotionally, but every beat rang true for the characters and built nicely on everything that preceded it. There are no loose ends, and everyone learns a lesson just nuanced enough to avoid being trite. It nails everything an animated family film in 2012 can and should be.

I’m hesitant to call Wreck-It Ralph the best video game movie ever. It’s certainly the best movie about video games ever; its only possible competition is Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, a film where exquisite craftmanship is at odds with an emotionally incoherent and tortuously unfunny screenplay. But some people seemed to believe Ralph was going to be some validation of video game storytelling, the moment it truly arrives through translation to a more respected medium. This is not the case. Wreck-It Ralph loves and respects video games and the culture around them, but it’s smart enough to structure itself like an actual film and not a game in film’s clothing. This is a good thing; games and movies are different entities with different goals and means of communication. Simply grafting one onto the other isn’t going to earn it any respect, and since Wreck-It Ralph is one of the most purely entertaining films of the year, who cares? It’s a wonderful movie, vital and welcoming, ready to transport us to an imaginative, fully rendered world. Most people I know enjoyed the film, but my bias toward it obviously goes a bit beyond that. This is a movie for everyone, but it is especially a movie for people so tickled by the idea of Mario and Commander Shepard living in marital bliss that they have a hard time not thinking about it.

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3 thoughts on “Side Quest: Wreck-It Ralph

  1. rainmaker97 says:

    I’m glad you mentioned Scott Pilgrim in your write-up; I wanted to mention it in mine, but couldn’t find a good place for it. It occupies a strange place in gaming history: it’s not explicitly about video games, but it comes up in every discussion of “the best movie for gamers.” I enjoyed it because I thought the comics were decent, I empathized with its dumb college-aged plot, it was set in Canada, and I like Edgar Wright. That being said, I recognized the many game references sprinkled throughout the movie (which are arguably what makes Scott Pilgrim a movie “for gamers,” but you could make an argument for its progressive defeat-the-bosses plot), but I cringed every time I saw them because they were painfully obvious and crudely implemented. “Hey I can play the bass line from Final Fantasy II!” “I’m getting a life!” The movie was already visual ADHD, and throwing coins and 1-Ups everywhere was more distracting than rewarding. But at the time, I felt Brian Lee O’Malley (who has an obvious love of JRPGs) and Edgar Wright (who put TimeSplitters 2 in Shaun of the Dead) had at least come closer to making a movie for gamers than anyone previously.

    Wreck-It Ralph had some obvious references near the beginning (the Bad Guys Anonymous thing was cute, but an easy laugh), but I felt the references became much more subtle (Rainbow Road!) as the movie began to rely less upon a parade of famous video game characters and more on being, like you said, an actual movie with real plot devices, character development, etc. This movie was marketed like the video-game version of Roger Rabbit (why the hell is Sonic on the cinematic poster?), but it smartly kept the references in check and allowed the plot and characters to drive the movie rather than allowing itself to be nothing more than fanservice.

    As far as whether Wreck-It Ralph is a validation of video game storytelling, I agree that it hasn’t suddenly made the medium worthy of Roger Ebert’s respect. A video game movie will never be able to do that; at the end of the day, it’s an above-average family film with a plot centred around video games. Its ties to video games are certainly less tenuous than most films, but it’s still a movie first and a piece of video game media second. A Shadow Of The Colossus movie, no matter how good or “artistic” the game might be, isn’t going to change people’s minds either; it’d be merely a movie using a plotline taken from a game. No, for games to be considered worthy of higher criticism, they have to be considered as games, not as adaptations to more respected media. Perhaps it’s a tougher road, and it’s one that raises its own troubling questions when you struggle to figure out how to criticize games without relying on schools of thought from other media. Sure, Wind Waker and Okami are pretty, but that’s art criticism. Red Dead Redemption has a soundtrack that’s well-matched to the gameplay, but that’s music criticism. Portal has incredible writing, but that’s literary criticism. I still don’t know what the hell an “artistic” game is, and worse, I don’t know the criteria by which I would judge one to be so.

    • You bring up a really great point. Lots of game writers — and I’m as guilty of this as anyone — will go on and on about “good” game design. But actually putting what makes game design good into words is incredibly difficult, so we fall back on the language used to critique other mediums. I think it’s about as fair to judge cutscenes or music in a game as it is to judge acting or a score in a film, but it is something we all have to keep in mind: How do we truly discuss games on their own terms?

      And totally agree that the Wreck-It Ralph promotional campaign is one of the more flabbergasting in recent memory. Who are they trying to get to go see what looks like a freaking Altered Beast movie?

  2. […] Side Quest: Wreck-It Ralph – And finally, I get to end the way I like, with someone who not only agrees with us, but does so in a movie review: […]

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