Released in early November of last year, Wreck-It Ralph is a computer generated animated feature film set against the backdrop of arcade games. Admittedly I was looking forward to the film's release and caught a showing on opening weekend. The film received positive to mixed reviews and while I won't reiterate what has been said a hundred times over about the cast and crew, here's my take on a film I enjoyed. I honestly had no expectations when going to see it, understanding it was created from the ground up as a family feature aimed at children, but I was pleased with what I saw.
In a nutshell the basic idea is Toy Story meets video games in asking the question, "what do video game characters do after the arcade is closed?" They go have a drink at Tapper's of course! Class division exists between the heroes of video games and the "bad guys" who tend to be cast off even after the game ends. Ralph is one such bad guy, the antagonist of an apparent Donkey Kong clone, "Fix-It Felix, Jr." At the end of the day, while Fix-It Felix is praised by the residents of the Niceland Apartments, Wreck-It Ralph has support group meetings with other bad guys. The world of Litwak's Arcade reminds me of the CGI-animated television series ReBoot, which examined the world inside a computer system and the lives of its inhabitants. Travel between games is provided via the power strip they are all plugged into. While game characters can come and go as they please, the core rule is that if you die outside of your game you will not regenerate. Ralph decides he's had enough of the status quo in his game and heads into a modern shooter, "Hero's Duty," to earn proof that he too can be regarded as a hero.
Once the arcade opens, the game characters get into position similar to the toys in the Toy Story films. The game characters get a warning that the machine is being credited and then all stand ready in their starting positions according to the game's code. With Ralph outside of his game, "Fix-It Felix, Jr." cannot be played, resulting in the game being stickered as "Out Of Order" by the arcade owner Mr. Litwak, wearing a striped referee shirt in homage to Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day. As he is the hero of the game, Felix sets out to find Ralph before the next day, as if the game isn't working by then it will be removed from the arcade.
After bouncing around in Hero's Duty, Ralph finds his way into a Japanese made kart racing game, "Sugar Rush," where the majority of the remainder of the film takes place. Here he meets Vanellope von Schweetz, a fragmented game character who is considered an outcast by the rest since she is prone to glitching. Something to also note is the Japanese title of the film is "Sugar Rush" and the Sugar Rush theme is performed by the outrageously popular Japanese idol group AKB48.
While the film is framed in the world of arcade games, the majority of its plot and character conflict takes place in Sugar Rush. In fact three eras of arcade gaming are represented with the three unique games: the 1980's (character driven high score games like Fix-It Felix, Jr.), the 1990's (super themed multiplayer driving games like Sugar Rush), and the 2000's (humongous, overpriced, flashy action simulators that are about graphics over gameplay like Hero's Duty.) Speaking of Hero's Duty, Felix arrives there on the trail of Ralph and becomes enamored with the game's lead heroine, space marine Sergeant Calhoun, who has been programmed with "the most tragic backstory in gaming history." Felix and Calhoun set off to find Ralph together as a game enemy from Hero's Duty, a Cy-Bug, escaped along with Ralph and poses a threat to the game worlds throughout the arcade. Will Felix and Calhoun succeed in hunting down the Cy-Bug? Will Ralph accept his place in Fix-It Felix, Jr. for the good of the other game characters? Will Vanellope carve out an existence for herself in Sugar Rush? I won't say, but it is a Disney family film so it's probably not that hard to figure out.
I can understand where the mixed reviews for this film come from. If you watch this movie thinking it'll be about video game character references throughout and will feature classic arcade games constantly then you will be disappointed. The arcade setting and worlds of classic video games and their characters are used as a framing device for the rest of the story. I thought a good job was done to develop original characters that didn't seem out of place among video game characters that have been around for decades. Although there are the usual jokes that will go over young viewer's heads and are directed at parents, this film never tries to act like it isn't a family film. I think most of the negativity associated with this movie was due to audience perception that it would be a gaming culture film, but I can't recall a time it was specifically advertised as such.My opening weekend viewing was to a fairly full theater, comprised of all ages, and I was surprised the audience was as quiet as they were. That's my litmus test for family films, if kids stay quiet throughout the film then they are engaged and enjoying it. In addition to AKB48's Sugar Rush theme, Jerry Buckner and the late Gary Garcia of Pac-Man Fever fame composed a song in the same vein of Pac-Man Fever about Wreck-It Ralph. I thought the film was very solid, I had a good time and I consider the film good family entertainment with a classic gaming spin. I particularly enjoyed that the "villain" of the movie was relatively hidden until toward the very end, especially when the film didn't seem to have one up until just before that point. It’s been a long time since I've seen that in a kid's film as everything is usually far more cut and dry. I also found the movie to be less preachy than family film fare of late, although it does carry with it a moral that everyone is important to the existence of a community and that everyone should be treated as equal because we all matter. Fred Rogers would be proud.
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