Well, director Rich Moore, whose credentials include a number of Futurama and golden age Simpsons episodes but no feature length films, has accomplished the seemingly impossible: He has directed a video game movie doesn’t make me want to slit my wrists. Yeah, Mr. Moore and the folks at Disney have kind of cheated—they made a movie about video games instead of adapting a particular video particular video game—but after decades of outright awful video game adaptations coming from hacks like Uwe Boll and Paul W.S. Anderson, I’ll take what I can get. Wreck-It Ralph may not be an actual video game, but the movie itself treats gaming culture with fondness and respect, which is more than any other Hollywood film has done up to this point. If Moore can make a fun movie about a non-existent game, then there’s still hope that someone will one day adapt a real video game into a great movie.
Borrowing liberally from the Toy Story movies, Wreck-It Ralph envisions a fantasy world where, after a small town arcade shuts down for the night, the characters from every game become sentient and fraternize with each other. This story follows Ralph (John C. Reilly), the villain of a classic Donkey Kong-inspired arcade game called Fix-It Felix, Jr. Ralph has spent the past three decades living through a cycle wherein he destroys the apartment building that serves as the centerpiece of each level, he loses to the Super Mario-inspired Fix-It Felix, Jr. (Jack MacBrayer), he is thrown from the roof by the building’s inhabitants, and he retires to the game’s junkyard. However, outside of his day job, he’s just a big lug with a heart of gold, and he’s grown tired of not getting any respect. When the 30th anniversary of Fix-It Felix, Jr. arrives and he’s not invited to the big celebration, he decides to jump games and prove to everyone that he can be a good guy for a change.
The screenplay for Wreck-It Ralph establishes a few ground rules for the movie’s universe. Any video game character can jump into any other game via a central hub that looks an awful like Grand Central Station. While in his own game, any character can die and casually respawn indefinitely, but if a character dies while outside of his own game, he dies permanently. If a character game jumps and doesn’t return to his own game before the arcade opens each morning, the game glitches. If a game glitches, the plug will get pulled on the arcade game itself, leaving the game’s characters homeless.
With those stakes laid down in the first half hour of Wreck-It Ralph, you can imagine the dilemma everyone faces when Ralph goes off the grid to become a hero. On his adventure, Ralph traverses a variety of landscapes including a candy-coated variation of Mario Kart and the world of Hero’s Duty, an amalgamation of Halo, Gears of War, and Mass Effect. Meanwhile, the denizens of Fix-It Felix, Jr. anxiously await the return of Ralph before the plug is pulled on their own 16-bit world. Each individual game universe adheres to a different set of rules so the visuals and feel of Wreck-It Ralph remains in a state of flux until the final hour or so of the movie.
Almost everything about Wreck-It Ralph is top notch. The designers have created a visual look that is heavily stylized, bringing the rough charm of the great classic arcade games to life despite the flashy computer generated imagery that is used to tell the story. The sense of nostalgia evoked by the imagery is further emphasized by the presence of a number of classic characters from video games such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter, Pac Man, Super Mario Brothers, and Mortal Kombat.
The story itself is pretty standard fare. Ralph, voiced by John C. Reilly in such a way that he sounds both brutish and sympathetically downtrodden, learns the standard Disney lesson about always being yourself; there’s even a stock villain for him to battle at the end of the movie. But the story, standard as it is, isn’t poorly told by any means. Moore overcomes the familiarity of the subject matter with strong visuals, frenetic action, and an attention to character development. Every action sequence is cleverly constructed, and several of the film’s gags are clever. Wreck-It Ralph may be saccharine, but it isn’t insulting.
Wreck-It Ralph disappoints only in the sense that it fails to live up to the marketing campaign behind the film. Much of the movie’s promotional material emphasized the presence of classic video game characters, and while many classic Sega, Nintendo, and Capcom characters turn up here, they don’t play any significant role in the movie. Those hoping to see Wreck-It Ralph teams up with M. Bison or Sonic will leave disappointed. However, Wreck-It Ralph is still leagues better than any video game adaptation that Hollywood has churned out yet, and now that we know that video game movies don’t have to suck, maybe some young filmmaker will be galvanized into finally making that great Legend of Zelda movie or Super Mario movie we’ve been waiting so long to see.
Note: If you decide to catch Wreck-It Ralph in theaters, make sure to get to the cinema before the picture itself starts. Running just before the feature is a Disney short film—Paperman—directed by John Kahrs and produced by John Lasseter. Without going into too much detail, this little seven minute, monochrome, 2D animated gem is one of the best things Disney’s animation studio has released in years.