Video games have become one of the dominant forms of entertainment, with budgets rivaling that of blockbuster films, and followings that are as rabid as diehard fans of any professional sports team. It makes sense, then, to create a film that caters to gamers. Wreck-It Ralph is Disney Animation Studios’ very clever offering in this regard. But while the film is loaded with inside jokes and other references that only gamers – especially old ones – will understand, there’s still a very rich story that every audience and every age will enjoy.
Imagine if the characters in arcade video games had lives that extended beyond what gamers saw whenever they played. What would those video game characters be like and what would they do after the players went home? Wreck-It Ralph answers those questions by showing the lives of these individuals behind the game console glass after the arcade closes, and not every character is as one-dimensional as their game presents them. For instance, Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the bad guy in his game by the same name. His job is to wreck the apartment building that has displaced his home and moved him to live in the city dump. Whenever he wrecks the building, his game nemesis, Fix-It Felix, Jr. (voiced by Jack McBrayer), repairs the damage. Afterward, Felix is awarded a medal and Ralph is tossed from the roof of the building into a pool of mud below. It’s a sorry existence, and one that Ralph is tired of. He believes that if he can win a gold medal, like the ones Felix has, that he’ll be treated with respect in his own game. Unfortunately, Ralph has to journey outside of his game to find that medal, and he’ll discover that getting a medal and earning one are two different things entirely.
From the very beginning, there are a lot of video game references in Wreck-It Ralph, and it’s a rare joy to see so many properties sharing the screen together, including Mortal Kombat, Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., Q-bert, Dig Dug, Tapper and more. But while those who only have a passing knowledge of video games will wonder what the more hardcore gamers in the audience are laughing at, the film does a great job in making sure the mechanics of the film are understood – gaming knowledge or no. For instance, the video game hub that allows the characters to visit other games is simply the power strip that connects the arcade game consoles. Video game characters can die infinitely in their own game, but should they perish in a different game they’re visiting, then death is permanent. It’s all very simple to follow and audiences will understand the stakes at hand.
Disney Animation Studios has done yet another wonderful job at fully realizing its vision with Wreck-It Ralph. Ralph’s 8-bit video game looks appropriately dated – even when the camera takes the audience behind the scenes and viewers get to see the characters in their natural states, most of them maintain their jerky animation complete with missing frames. The same goes for the other games that Ralph visits, like Hero’s Duty, which is a violent first-person shooter, and Sugar Rush, which is a racing game set in a land made of candy. Sugar Rush is so realized that no detail was overlooked, ranging from the chocolate powder that acts as dirt race tracks to the candy cane striped trees. Sugar Rush might actually be too developed since there are some mechanics in that game world that really have nothing to do with racing, but that’s a very small criticism at best.
In fact, there’s very little to dislike about Wreck-It Ralph. All of the voice actors do stellar jobs, especially Sarah Silverman as Vanellope von Schweetz, the glitch girl in Sugar Rush. Not only does she capture the voice of a little girl, but also the raw, under-developed emotions. The other actors also turn in excellent performances, but that seems to be more a product of great casting, like Jane Lynch as the tough-as-nails, metaphor-spitting Sergeant Calhoun, and McBrayer as Felix. Their voices just pair up nicely with their characters.
Beyond all the video game jargon and the clever use of anthropomorphized food, however, is a great, albeit predictable story. Ralph starts off thinking that simply having a medal makes him a hero, but will come to learn that it’s heroic deeds, making the tough decisions and putting others before oneself is what makes the hero. It’s a familiar journey, but definitely one worth repeating for any generation. As such, Wreck-It Ralph shouldn’t be missed.