There’s a dirty word in movies that comes to describe a certain pandering type of film that plays upon the easiest of human emotions to get cheap reactions. That word is sappy. I bring this up because usually the difference between something that is sappy and something else which is just organically sentimental is basically a screenplay that earns it. I think earning sentimental moments is one of the hardest things to do in screenwriting, and there are so few kinds of films that really do it. There’s Rain Man, Terms of Endearment, mostly anything by the late John Hughes, as well as The King’s Speech and WALL-E for more recent examples. When you can pull that off you can elicit a pretty strong reaction from audiences that can hide a lot of other flaws the movie may have.
Wreck-It Ralph is one of these kinds of films. This is a Disney film, but not made by Pixar. And since the creation of the brilliant Pixar, this is probably Disney’s first non-Pixar film that is of Pixar quality. I know those last two sentences were a bit of a mouthful, but it speaks to the mediocre nature of what Disney animated features has been putting out, outside of Pixar. It was directed by Simpsons and Futurama mainstay Rich Moore, who seems to understand with this what Dreamworks and Disney were struggling with over the last two decades: you can have adults enjoy a kid’s movie by making a really good kid’s movie, not necessarily by making a kid’s movie that panders towards adults. I blame Shrek for creating the sub-genre of innuendo-laced kiddie flicks that seemed to send animated features off base until Pixar came along to put it back on the right track.
The film takes place in the world of video games. In one particular game named “Fix-It Felix Jr.”, Ralph (John C. Reilly), is a “wrecker”. He’s nine feet tall, over six hundred pounds, and his hands are so big they take up about half of his overall size. His job? Wreck the hotel in his game. Only Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer) – the hero of the game, with his magical hammer – can stop him and, as games tend to do, he usually does stop him. And the game ends with Felix and the rest of the hotel’s patrons throwing Ralph off of the high-rise building into a pile of mud. This would all be fine to Ralph, except that when the arcade closes and all the characters go to their regular life, Ralph is still left on the outskirts of the hotel, sleeping in a pile of shattered bricks while Felix gets to sleep inside collecting the daily medals he gets for saving them from Ralph’s “wrecking”.
Tired of the lack of respect and recognition he gets in his game, Ralph heads to “Game Central Station” to attempt to get into another game – a game where he can be the hero and show all of those in “Fix-It Felix, Jr.”. The first game is a futuristic first-person-shooter game called “Hero’s Duty”, where you must fight off a legion of alien bugs along with a crew lead by the hard-edged but beautiful Calhoun (Jane Lynch), who comes with a heartbreaking backstory built into her code that is so good that it can’t be revealed here. Ralph also ventures into “Sugar Rush”, a candy-themed racing game that is lead by the magnanimous King Candy (Alan Tudyk). In this game, Ralph meets Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a young girl racer who has a glitch in her code that makes her dangerous to the rest of the game.
Ralph’s misadventures throughout the various games begin to overlap and the problems compound leading to a conclusion that is probably too heavily weighted toward the inevitable “action/race ending”, but it still feels satisfying despite that. Wreck-It Ralph‘s first act also may rely a little bit too much on the cuteness of referencing various types of video game details and a plethora of different kinds of candy. But what comes in between those moments are pretty wonderful. The screenplay (written by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee) brilliantly blends all of the characters’ arcs into a quaint tale that only momentarily loses it’s sweet sense of humor. After the thirty-minute mark, the film has done all it can with video game references (after all, hasn’t Scott Pilgrim already mastered that in a movie?) and starts telling its rather compelling story.
In one of the film’s best scenes, early in the movie, Ralph sits in a meeting that is called “Bad-Anon”, which is an interesting name considering that everyone there already knows everyone that is sitting around them. It is a meeting of all the bad guys from all of the arcade’s video games. There are zombies, the ghost from “Pacman”, Wario from “Super Mario Bros.”, etc. It’s a hilarious concept to see these characters sitting around trying to come to grips with the thought of having a career as “the bad guy”, but as one of the villains explains to him in the meeting, “Just because you’re a bad guy, doesn’t mean you’re a bad guy“. I reference this scene because it shows how the film taps into something that hasn’t been tapped into since the original Toy Story film. That these things, whether it be characters in video games or plastic toys, that we fill with our imaginations – what if they were real?
It’s a brilliant concept when you consider that the most powerful thing that a child has is its imagination. Anyone who remembers being a kid remembers personifying their stuffed animals into scenarios of Shakespearean drama. And this film, along with Toy Story, shows how powerful a kid’s movie can be when you tap into that idea, playing around with it until you’re creating your own tale filled by your imagination. After all, isn’t that what storytelling is to begin with? It’s a concept that both adults and children can appreciate. I go off on this long tangent because I think it’s refreshing to finally see an animated film, not made by Pixar, that finally understands its audience and tells a good story that they’d want to hear. Not just something to keep the obligatory parents happy.
I mentioned sentimentality at the beginning of this post because Wreck-It Ralph sure has plenty of it. Ralph’s relationship with Vanellope grows strongly and approaches something close to what Monsters, Inc.‘s Sulley had with the small child “Boo”, but Ralph does not have anywhere near the amount of tear-jerking scenes that that film has. Instead, Ralph‘s sentimental moments come more from a brother-sister type relationship, not a paternal one. But my own personal issues with the film’s third act aside, it does properly earn any sentimental moments that it may have and it never boils over to “sappy”. Wreck-It Ralph‘s screenplay is too good and self-assured to get bogged down in that. But it does go for some heart. And it definitely gets some.
Directed by Rich Moore