Wreck-it Ralph is Disney’s latest animation, and much like last month’s Frankenweenie, it is aimed primarily at children but brings enough to the table for the adults to chew on. There are two protagonists in the movie: Vanellope von Schweetz, a little girl who no one will play with, and the titular character, Wreck-it Ralph, who is having a mid-life crisis. Vanellope just wants to be included and have fun with everyone else. Ralph has grown tired of who he is and his role in society. Normal everyday problems that normal everyday people have, except that Vanellope and Ralph aren’t normal everyday people. They are two video game characters.
This is familiar territory for Disney and executive producer John Lasseter. Much like Toy Story, Wreck-it Ralph imagines that the characters in the video game inhabit a world, very much like our own, when we are not there. I suppose this works for an arcade because the games are never turned off. What do they do when we are not playing them? The games are connected through the cords and surge protectors, and the grand hub of the arcade is Game Central Station, where all the characters are allowed to interact and mingle. Wide shots of Game Central are populated with every video game character one can imagine, and freeze frames will be quite popular once the DVD comes out.
Wreck-it Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the bad guy in the arcade game “Fix-It Felix Jr.” Stylized after Donkey Kong, Wreck-it Ralph’s stump home has been displaced to build a high-rise apartment, Niceland. Ralph responds by destroying the place until super superintendent Fix-it Felix Jr. (voiced by Jack McBrayer) shows up with a hammer that can repair anything it touches. Felix saves the day from the destructive monster, the Nicelanders toss Ralph off the roof, and the game ends. Another patron comes along, drops another quarter in the machine, and here we go again. Felix, Ralph, the Nicelanders, all play out the same routine time and time again. The catch is, if it’s your game and you are the hero, then it’s paradise. The name of the game is “Fix-it Felix Jr.” and Fix-it Felix Jr. is the hero, of course, he loves his job. Ralph is the bad guy, and in a bizarre, Sisyphean manner, he always has his stump bulldozed, he always has Felix fixing his destruction, and he always has the people of Niceland to throw him off the roof.
Ralph wonders if there is something more to life. Maybe there is a different game he could play in where he isn’t the bad guy but the good guy. No bad guy thinks of themselves as the bad guy; they are the heroes of their own stories. Ralph visits a meeting of The Bad Guy Support group, think AA with video game villains. Here they meet, swap stories, build each other up when they feel down for being bad guys, and recite the Bad Guy Affirmation: I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.
Ralph can’t believe that all these other bad guys have accepted their place in their games, and no one around him feels the same as he does. All heroes feel this way, and the lure of the adventure is too much for Ralph.
Ralph learns of another game, “Hero’s Duty,” where you can get a medal at the end. Ralph tells the people of Niceland that he is going to come back with a medal, and that will prove that he is a good guy. Ralph leaves “Fix-it Felix Jr.” and travels to “Hero’s Duty,” a violent first-person shooter that Ralph simply isn’t cut out for. The main character of “Hero’s Duty” is Calhoun (voiced by Jane Lynch), a tough-as-nails captain that yells at her squadron and calls them all ladies. Calhoun is neither a hero nor a bad guy. She has two priorities in her programming: her first priority is to get the first person/player to the end of the level, her second is to make sure that the vicious villain of the game, Cy-bugs, stays within the game. Ralph manages to get in the way of both of these on the way to gaining the medal. He and a Cy-bug are launched into a nearby game, “Sugar Rush,” and Ralph loses the medal, and a Cy-bug makes itself very at home.
“Sugar Rush” is a vibrant candy-themed cart racing game in a Thomas Kinkade painting. It is populated with candies and diminutive pixie-like characters that are ruled by a benevolent overlord, King Candy (Alan Tudyk doing an excellent Ed Wynn). Ralph meets Vanellope von Schweetz (voiced by Sarah Silverman), who is a character that has a glitch in her program. This glitch makes her an outcast among the people of “Sugar Rush,” and Vanellope wants nothing more than to be a part of the group and race like everyone else. Vanellope takes Ralph’s medal and uses it as an entrance fee to compete in the race. Ralph cannot return to his game empty-handed and so must help Vanellope place in the race to ensure that he gets his medal back.
There are a few more reveals and twists to the plot that I wouldn’t want to spoil here. They aren’t hard left turns, just natural plot developments that Disney does so well. It is a children’s movie, so you know it’s all going to end okay, and there is a lesson to be learned. I think it’s a good lesson. This might sound a little bit like paint-by-numbers storytelling, and it is. They go on quests, cross thresholds, confront various forms of conflict, overcome this and that, rescue the Princess, but it feels fresh. Disney has always had a knack for this type of storytelling, and it is on display here. There is a certain type of joy one gets while watching this movie. Nothing is wasted, everything serves a purpose, and every character gets at least one moment to shine, one moment to fail, and quite a few moments to make us laugh.
Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Directed By: Rich Moore
Written By: Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston with additional story material from John C. Reilly
Produced By: Clark Spencer
Starring: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk
Walt Disney Animations Studios, Running Time 108 minutes, Rated PG, Released November 2, 2012.