It’s been almost twenty years since Toy Story was released. Since then, Pixar has brought the hidden world of toys, cars, fish, rats that cook, superheroes and monsters to the big screen. It has taken almost as long for Disney, Dreamworks and other studios to learn the lessons of Pixar storytelling. In 2010 DreamWorks gave us How to Train Your Dragon and Disney returned to form with Tangled. Both were computer-animated, but the medium was no longer seen as merely a gimmick to stay relevant. There was real art to be made.
Last year Disney’s in-house animation studio picked up the slack from Pixar’s solid but relatively regular Brave and invited us to the world of videogames in Wreck-It Ralph. In Ralph, we get to meet the heroes and villains of the games we grew up playing. The appropriately retro setting is an arcade, filled with the classics from past decades. The fictional game at the center of the movie is “Fix-It Felix, Jr.”, essentially a Donkey Kong clone.
The game’s namesake and hero is voiced with lisping optimism by 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer. John C. Reilly lends sincerity and lightness to Ralph, the game’s antagonist. Ralph’s an everyman who just wants to be respected and appreciated by the people he sees each day. His desire is complicated by the fact that his “job” is to be the “bad guy”, and he struggles to find his place in a world where he’s been written as an outcast. Hundreds of times a day, every day, he watches handyman hero Fix-It Felix save the inhabitants of the apartment complex he is supposed to “wreck,” receive a medal, and enjoy the accolades of his friends.
But once the last kid leaves the arcade, we get to see a different side of the virtual world. Each game’s characters head home, to the bar, or, in Ralph’s case, to a support group for game villains. “I am bad, and that’s good,” they tell each other, “I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There is no one I’d rather be than me.” Faced with either resignation or breaking the rules, Ralph does what he does best: he wrecks everything when he decides to “game-jump,” impersonating a soldier in the Starship Trooper-esque “Hero’s Duty” in an effort to get a medal of his own. His escape from the game’s sci-fi insect swarm leads him to the racing game “Sugar Rush,” where he meets the wonderfully named misfit Vanellope von Schweetz (voiced by comedienne Sarah Silverman). Forming an unlikely alliance, the two lost souls help each other find a place in their games and their world.
That world is a seamless mixture of original ideas like “Fix-It Felix” and “Hero’s Duty” with the classic videogames we know and love. The viewer is treated to appearances from Zangief, Pac-Man, Sonic and many more, but they function as much more than pop culture gags; these are the inhabitants that would populate any arcade. The attention to detail and visuals help present the virtual world on a whole new level. DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon utilized computer animation to bring to the screen skyscapes and sea cliffs that could actually take your breath away, and in “Wreck-It Ralph” the colors pop and the scope is every bit as epic as the games it emulates. One highlight has the highly adaptable alien swarm of “Hero’s Duty” taking on new forms in the “Sugar Rush” world, resulting in a terrifying combination between candy and killer cockroaches.
Wreck-It Ralph is a movie that could only succeed now that geek culture has exploded into the mainstream. In a decade in which there are televised StarCraft matches, and Halo 4 makes more money than Harry Potter or “Marvel’s Avengers” (also major geek properties), it is anything but farfetched that characters from a game world would be as well-drawn as those on the big screen. The movie’s titular hero isn’t off to save the world or fight some menacing foe. Ralph is torn between a desire for change in himself and the foreboding sense that he is doomed to play out the same defeats day in and day out. It’s a tension everyone feels, and while we love watching Joss Whedon’s übermenschen, there is little in Captain America, Iron Man or Thor to which the viewer can relate. Ralph mixes story and spectacle, but there is no fantasy to Ralph’s hopes and fears.
Ralph isn’t the only one. He is one character in a massive world, filled with other people coming to grips with their own identities, emotions, and “backstories.” Early on, we meet Sergeant Calhoun, a hardened officer from “Hero’s Duty,” voiced with all of the grit you’d expect from Jane Lynch. A character explains Calhoun’s icy demeanor, telling Ralph that “she was programmed with the most tragic backstory ever written.” No spoilers here, but it ended up being a hilarious nod to all of the genre-savvy viewers out there…which today, means basically everyone.
We’re finally recovering from the disillusionment of the nineties and the hyperaware ironic detachment of the aughties (think Shrek); yes, we know it’s not the first time around, and we know it’s not always going to be a shiny happy fairy tale, but we press forward anyway because people and stories still have meaning. This insistence that there is in fact real meaning to be found flies in the face of everything that Ralph and Vanellope are told—Ralph’s hyper-aware support group reminds him that he “will never be good, and that’s not bad”, and Vanellope’s fellow racers tell her that she is just a glitch who will never be part of the game.
But Ralph wants to be a hero, and Vanellope tells him that she knows she’s a racer, “deep down in her code”. They know that they’re messed up. And they don’t stop. Their striving brings to mind Hugo’s tearful pleading in Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece: “Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need… I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason.”
2010’s film adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World served as a kind of pop culture thermometer: we thought we were running out of stories, and the only thing left was to tell stories about telling stories. Wreck-It Ralph is a fresh metaphor for rising out of cultural ennui, affirming earnestness in the face of cynicism and purpose above resignation. Awards season is upon us, and Ralph outdoes the rest of the animation slate, reminding us of Theodore Roosevelt’s words, written on the inside of so many inspirational graduation gift books, but still weighty:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly…who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions…and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”