It is a widely held opinion that no good film based on a video game has yet been made, and it’s a hard point to argue against. But the culture around video games and its concept of infinite digital worlds has produced some fine stand-alone films, from charming ’80s family fun like Wizard, to reality-bending thrillers like David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. But if any film paved the way for video games to be taken seriously in the movies, it was The King of Kong, the outstanding 2007 documentary about obsessive gameplay and retro fixation.
It’s hard to think of Wreck-It Ralph existing in a time before The King of Kong, and yet the idea was first pitched at Disney back in the 1980s. The set-up is reminiscent of Toy Story – when an arcade closes down for the night, the characters from various games take their leisure time, travelling between games or resting in the train station-like lobby inside the multi-socket plug that connects the games together.
Inside Fix-It Felix, a fictional 8-bit retro game still mercifully standing in the arcade after 30 years, time has taken its toll on the game’s badguy, Wreck-It Ralph. A Donkey Kong-like brute (Fix-It Felix is a window repairman to Mario’s plumber), Ralph dreams of being taken seriously by the denizens of the game, and not still treated like a villain when he clocks-off after closing. At an AA-style meeting for video game badguys, Ralph admits to his peers (cameos include Mario’s Bowser, Street Fighter 2’s M. Bison and Zangief, and Sonic the Hedgehog’s Dr. Eggman/Robotnik) that he doesn’t want to be a badguy any more. “Just because you are a badguy doesn’t mean you are a bad guy,” Zangief reassures him, but Ralph takes no solace in the good advice.
To prove he is a hero, Ralph game jumps from his 8-bit pixellated comfort zone into the hi-def world of contemporary shoot-’em-ups in a game called Hero’s Duty (Halo meets Medal of Honor). Come morning, his absence from the Fix-It Felix game draws disappointment from arcade customers, and the manager is forced to mark the game “out of order”, making unplugging imminent. Felix himself teams up with a feisty female sergeant from Hero’s Duty to find Ralph and save their world.
Ralph’s rage issues make him an unlikely children’s movie hero, as his tantrums range from hormonal teenager to potential domestic abuser, but his upset is easy to appreciate and his journey makes him a calmer, happier person. Voiced by John C. Reilly, whose input into the character earned him a writing credit on the film, he is far gruffer than traditional Disney heroes – a less handsome or street-smart Aladdin, a less upbeat Pinocchio.
Much of the latter half of the film is set in the game Sugar Rush, a candy-themed version of Mario Kart where Bratz-like J-pop characters race across mountains of marshmallow and rivers of caramel. Here Ralph meets Vanellope, a childish outcast like himself, who due to faulty programming uncontrollably glitches into 1s and 0s, meaning she can’t take part in the actual game, or leave its world. Sarah Silverman’s potty-mouthed performance is at first highly irritating, but once Ralph and Vanellope develop a rapport there is an undeniable sweetness in the oddball coupling, he 20 times her size.
Jack McBrayer (of 30 Rock fame) is awkwardly charming as Felix, but Jane Lynch steals the film as the no-nonsense Sergeant Calhoun, a far tougher version of her Glee character Sue Sylvester. Calhoun is “programmed with the most tragic backstory ever”, and nabs many of the film’s most brilliantly melodramatic lines, referring to the unsettling world of Sugar Rush as a “candy-coated heart of darkness”. Alan Tudyk hams it wonderfully as King Candy, the flamboyant ruler of Sugar Rush, taking his cues from the Mad Hatter in the 1951 Disney Alice in Wonderland.
While the story is mostly predictable (barring one excellent twist near the end), Wreck-It Ralph’s greatest achievement is in its creation of its video-game world. Like Rex the dinosaur discussing his being “from Mattel” in Toy Story, the characters know the rules of their complicated world – there is no Buzz Lightyear-style confusion. In addition to the countless cameos by famous game personalities (Mario is notable in his absence), there are several clever nods to more obscure games and gameplay rules. Minor characters in Fix-It Felix move in stuttered pixellated spurts, even when fully realised in 3D animation. The 1980s beer-serving game Tapper is where characters go to drink, and a drunk game character walks mindlessly into a wall like a World of Warcraft avatar with the forward key held down. 3D versions of Pong figures, massive cuboids instead of bars, continue to pass the ball back and forth even outside their game. Even more subtle, the security code to a vault is the “access any level” cheat code from the original Sonic the Hedgehog.
Despite its charms and humour, Wreck-It Ralph is let down by its look, lacking the gloss of Pixar or DreamWorks’s latest outputs. So much of the film is set in the Sugar Rush game that the artificial colours and textures begin to grate visually, although the countless puns on sweets are more than welcome (Felix nearly drowns in a pit of Nesquiksand!). The added 3D throws up very few moments of engrossing depth, even during the climactic race, so opt for the glasses-off version.
But this is not an ugly film, and it is often very playful with its look as it switches between 3D and pixellated visuals – the closing credits feature the heroes popping up in several classic games tracing decades of video game development. Sometimes moving, regularly funny, often exciting and always far more clever than it needs to be, Wreck-It Ralph is a real treat worth putting all your quarters into for a fun arcade adventure.
It would be unfair not to mention the Disney digital short, Paperman, which precedes Wreck-It Ralph; a gorgeous, simple romantic tale, told in black and white, about a pencil jockey trying to attract the attention of a beautiful stranger. Make sure you’re not late to the cinema.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)