“Wreck-It Ralph”: A Closer Look

Animation these days seems to be dominated by two recurring companies, DreamWorks Animation (Madagascar, Shrek, How To Train Your Dragon) and Pixar (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Up). While this trend is understandable, many often forget that Disney still has its own animation branch that has been churning out movies like Tangled and Bolt over the past few years. This weekend, Disney Animation Studios released their newest picture, Wreck-It-Ralph, to great success, and it managed to top the box office with a stellar $49 million while also scoring some pretty enthusiastic reviews (our own Zack Sharf gave it an 8/10). However, money doesn’t necessarily mean quality, and while I enthusiastically loved the movie as much as Zack did, I do have one major bone to pick; so, let’s take a closer look at the movie and determine whether or not Wreck-It Ralph stands up to the likes of Pixar and DreamWorks.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

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What Works

Ralph’s Character Arc

As I’ve stated before in previous posts, a story is nothing more than the characters at its heart, and if you don’t have a compelling character for the audience to relate to then you almost automatically have a meaningless and emotionless story. Thankfully, Wreck-It Ralph manages to have a likeable and intriguing main character in the form of Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly).

At its core, Wreck-It Ralph is a story about a man who feels out of place and underappreciated. You see, Ralph is the main villain in the classic videogame “Fix-It-Felix Jr.” and he attempts to ruin an apartment building whilst Felix (Jack McBrayer) attempts to fix it and take down Ralph. While Ralph was initially content with the job, after 30 years he’s grown unsatisfied and unfulfilled; he also doesn’t like being the socially out-casted villain and dreams of one day becoming a hero. When he is finally pushed to the edge, Ralph makes the rash decision to leave his game and jump from game to game until he can prove that he has what it takes to be a hero.

While you understand where Ralph is coming from, his decision initially seems selfish and petty. It would be one thing if his decision didn’t affect anyone else, but by leaving his game he sets off a series of events that could lead to the permanent shutdown of “Fix-It-Felix Jr.” He also unknowingly releases a deadly bug virus on other game worlds when he attempts to win a “Hero Medal” in the Gears of War like “Hero’s Duty.” In the first half of the film, Ralph is entirely motivated by his need to be accepted and desired.  While it’s a relatable quandary, he doesn’t seem to realize or care that his actions have consequences outside himself. However, as he arrives at “Sugar Rush”, a candy coated Mario Kart knockoff, and begins to interact with Venellope (Sarah Silverman), we begin to see Ralph change for the better.

When Ralph initially enters “Sugar Rush”, he is intent on retrieving his newly earned medal and returning to “Fix-It-Felix Jr.” and proving that he’s a hero. However, he is dragged into the world of competitive sugar racing when the glitch of “Sugar Rush,” Venellope, steals his medal to buy into the annual race to determine who is a playable character for the human players. At first, Ralph is understandably upset, but he begins to sympathize with her once he witnesses the way in which the “normal” characters of the world treat Venellope for being a glitch. He immediately relates to her as a mutual outsider and decides to team up with Venellope in order for her to win the race and repay him his lost medal. It’s at this point that we begin to see a notable change in Ralph as he slowly becomes more and more selfless through Venellope’s influence. At first, their relationship is purely based of mutual necessity, but as they spend more and more time together they become closer and begin to care for one another in almost a father-daughter sort of way. As Ralph helps her train and become a racecar driver, he recognizes that his problems aren’t as important as he initially perceived.

While many might claim that by breaking Venellope’s car Ralph is proving his selfish desires are more important than her, in reality his decision is based more off his desire to keep her safe rather than selfishness. While he gets his medal back, you can see the physical anguish in his face as he destroys her car – he hates that he has to do this but he does so anyways, firmly believing that it’s the only way he can save her. It’s through this influence and change in behavior that we believe Ralph would be willing to sacrifice himself in order to save Sugar Rush and Venellope. By the end of the film, Ralph has gone from a selfish, well-meaning villain into a true hero, both physically and emotionally, and he discovers that there is so much more to being a hero than simply desiring to be one. By realizing that it takes sacrifice and courage to truly be a hero, Ralph’s journey becomes extremely relatable (even for an animated movie) and highly intriguing and, as a result, it’s completely captivating to watch him come to this realization and it makes the film all the more entertaining for adults who actually want to see some character development in movies tailor made for their kids.

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The Animation

The most immediately noticeable aspect of Wreck-It Ralph is its gorgeous animation.  The movie wastes no time immersing you into this videogame dreamscape filled with vibrant colors and crazy character designs. The overall design of the arcade world and the game characters that inhabit it is staggeringly beautiful, faithfully rendered, and is worth the price of admission alone.

Within the first five minutes, Wreck-It-Ralph sets itself apart from the rest of animation through some of the most creative visuals and is more apparent than the unbelievable ingenuity of the world designs. First there is the Donkey Kong inspired Fix-It-Felix Jr.; at first, this world seems nothing more than a wanna-be Donkey Kong, with a repairman instead of a plumber, and an ape-like man rather than an actual ape, but there are enough visual differences to set it apart from Donkey Kong thanks to some clever character design. It isn’t until we enter the central game hub that things really become interesting.  The concept of the central game hub by itself is genius: picture Grand Central Station only each train being power strip that zaps you into the arcade machine of a different videogame. The idea of having a central hub for the arcade is brilliant and clever and is perfectly realized on screen – it’s big, expansive, busy, and extremely chaotic, just like the real Grand Central Station. Also, be sure to keep a close eye out each time the film cuts to this exciting locale, for it’s at the hub that we glimpse some of the best videogame cameos, including Qubert and Sonic.

Next we visit the gritty and dangerous game called “Hero’s Duty”, which appears to be mash up of Call of Duty and Gears of War and depicts a world overrun with cybernetic bugs that multiply and adapt to their adversary at every turn. Ralph poses as one of the heavily armored space marines in an attempt to make it to the top of the tower to claim the Hero’s Medal, and as he fights his way to the top we see that the world itself is fantastically designed, oozing with foreboding tension and dark shadows that make the green slime of the bugs all the more eerie and spine tingling. Even the bugs themselves are particularly fearsome and serve as a formidable force for Ralph to deal with.

However, the animation is at its best once Ralph makes it to Sugar Rush. The animation of this candy coated world is outstanding thank to its vibrant colors and clever design.  Immediately noticeable is the fact that everything in the game is made out of some sort of candy – the roads, the mountains, the inhabitants, and even the racecars are all some kind of sweet, some made up of Oreos, frosting, cookie dough, or a combo of all three. As a result, it’s extremely fun to keep a keen eye and try and determine what kind of candy makes up each structure. If anything, the animation keeps your eyes glued to the screen at every moment, and what could be a better compliment than that?

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The Side Characters      

One of the biggest surprises of Wreck-It Ralph is the hysterical and compelling side characters interspersed throughout Ralph’s journey. While in the end it really is Ralph’s movie, there are a few times when some of the side characters manage to outshine the main character, most notably Fix-It-Felix Jr.

Felix by himself is hilarious, but it is through his pairing with “Hero’s Duty’s” Calhoun (Jane Lynch) that hilarity really hits hard. He immediately falls in love with her and becomes a love struck puppy, willing to do anything to prove himself worthy of her strong willed, tight wound affection. Some of the funniest scenes of the movie are between these two characters, particularly the scene where Calhoun tells Felix the story of her wedding. Jack McBrayer manages to give Felix a sense of boy-like wonder and naivety that makes his character extremely endearing, and it also doesn’t hurt that he spends the majority of the film trying to fix the mess that Ralph created. Also, the idea of having a hammer that fixes everything is hilarious and consistently used well beyond Felix’s game, especially when he tries to use it to break out of jail, only to make his bars extra thick. He also has what is probably the best line of the movie; when he is confronted with the underlying evil that haunts Sugar Rush, he yells out, “What’s going on in this candy coated heart of darkness!” What’s especially great is the fact that the filmmakers took his character in a unique direction. In most stories in which a villain wants to be a hero, the hero is depicted as no more than a douchey adversary for the villain, a la Dr. Horrible’s Sin-a-Long Blog. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it is nice to see Wreck-It Ralph take a different route and depict the hero as a well-meaning character that truly cares about the safety of his game and even his villain.

Also surprising was how strong of a villain King Candy was. When you initially meet him he seems like a pretty straightforward villain who wants to keep Venellope out of the race because she’s a glitch. However, once it’s revealed that he is secretly the game hopping and destroying Turbo (which characters foreshadow multiple times throughout the first two halves of the film), it puts a much more interesting spin on him since he then serves as a foil character for Ralph; he’s basically an example of what Ralph could have become had it not been for the influence of Venellope. Turbo was so obsessed with being the best racer that he was willing to abandon his game in order to become the best racer in other, more popular games like “Sugar Rush”. While this is a bit more selfish and evil than Ralph’s motivations, they definitely share some similarities in their desires to be loved and desired.

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What Doesn’t Work             

Game Jumping Missed Opportunities

With a premise this original and filled with so much potential, it’s kind of a shame that the movie only explores two different videogame worlds. While both “Hero’s Duty” and “Sugar Rush” are fantastic worlds with amazing designs and well-rounded characters, I cant help but wish we got to see a few other videogame worlds, even if it was for only a brief couple minutes.

When Ralph first leaves his game to go prove himself a hero, the movie sets up the idea that Ralph is going to go from game to game until he can find a way to prove himself, so it feels a little contrived that the very first game he enters happens to have exactly what he’s looking for. It would have been a wonderful sequence had they inserted a well-packaged montage of Ralph going from game to game looking for a way to prove himself, that way we would have gotten a better sense for how large the arcade was, got quick glimpses of the other videogame dreamscapes (think about all the ripe videogames the filmmakers could’ve incorporated!), and it would have made his ultimate stop in “Hero’s Duty” that much more satisfying after watching him try and fail numerous times. Instead, he goes straight to “Hero’s Duty” and then spends the rest of the entire movie in “Sugar Rush”.

This all brings up the movies second fault: it spends way too long in “Sugar Rush”.  While it’s true that some of the best parts of the movie take place in “Sugar Rush”, there were times were the film felt stagnant thanks to the amount of time spent there. After a little while, the movie starts to feel less like a movie about a fully realized arcade and more about the happenings in “Sugar Rush”, which is a bit disappointing seeing as they had an entire arcade to explore and use to crowd-pleasing effect. There was so much more they could have done with the premise, and while they achieve what they set out to, you can’t help but feel a little disappointed in their lack of ambition. The bottom line is that the filmmakers play it safe, and though it ends up all working (primarily thanks to the characters, see above), this game jumping premise begs for more exploration and definitely more videogame worlds, but perhaps Disney Animation Studios is saving that for the inevitable Wreck-It Ralph 2.

Do you guys agree? Were you entertained by the film but disappointed in didn’t explore as much as the trailer may have suggested? Would you like to see a sequel? Sound off in the discussion boards below!

Article By James Hausman

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