The newest 3D computer-animated movie from Walt Disney Animation is Wreck-It Ralph, the storied studio’s 52nd feature length film, which follows the 2011 critical smash, Winnie the Pooh, and the 2010 box office blockbuster, Tangled. The CGI movie is set within the world of arcade games, and it’s being created by a team that has spent their entire lives practicing for this love affair with interactive entertainment.
In many ways, Wreck-It Ralph is the video game incarnation of Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Where that movie paid homage to classic animated characters, Wreck-It Ralph will feature hundreds of cameos from video game characters from over the years. Some will make just a quick appearance in a crowd scene, while others will have larger roles and interact with the main characters.
Producer Clark Spencer said that there are over 1,200 characters in the film’s Game Central Station area, a locale that serves as the main hub where all the coin-op machines connect to the power strips at the arcade. It’s here that classic characters from games like Dig Dug, Street Fighter, and Joust can mingle with console game characters like Bowser and Sonic the Hedgehog.
“I think one of the reasons Wreck-It Ralph works as an idea is because the story came first and the world of video games is just a place to set it in,” said Spencer. “We could tell this exact same story in a different world; this doesn’t have to be in video games. Video games just create this great visual experience to be able to go from game to game and being able to enjoy those other characters that are a part of this movie, but I think it has to start with the story.”
The plot is very firmly set within the world of arcades, even if actual arcades are limited these days to the likes of Chuck E. Cheese and Dave & Buster’s.
Wreck-It Ralph follows the journey of the aforementioned Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), who’s sick of being the bad guy that destroys the Niceville tower and instead decides to seek a medal so he can become a part of the community. This sends Ralph out of his 8-Bit world on an adventure that spans multiple games, including the fictional first-person shooter “Hero’s Journey” (which introduces Jane Lynch as Sergeant Calhoun) and the console kart racer “Sugar Rush.” Along the way Ralph meets up with Vanellope von Schweetz (voiced by Sarah Silverman), a glitch who is shunned by the other racers.
“The challenge was, ‘How do you write a compelling story around these characters that do one thing?’” said Rich Moore, the film’s director. “We just had to develop a world that that was their job, and when it was over, it was, ‘Okay, back to the Start position,’ and they go back. We developed the world to be a nine-to-five grind for these guys, and when the arcades close, they’re off the clock.”
Moore showed 30 minutes of the unfinished film, which opens November 2, to a small group of media in 2D. While gamers will enjoy looking for all of the cameos (and this is a film that warrants repeat viewings and Blu-ray freeze frames), it’s the characters of Ralph and Vanelope that stand out and should connect with the much broader audience.
“The video game cameos are the prize, but the substance of the story is Ralph’s relationship with Vanellope,” said Moore. “There’s so much more under the surface than people are seeing right now in the trailer. I think people will be surprised when they see this movie and how deep the relationship is and how emotional it is. There’s a ton of heart to it. These two misfit characters that are pariahs in their own worlds — Ralph because he’s the villain and Vanellope because she’s a glitch that should have been deleted — come together and help one another. People will come away with the depth and richness of these characters and connect with the way they feel. We know John and Sarah for how funny they are, but they bring real drama and heart.”
There’s also plenty of video game action and humor. Moore previously served as an executive producer on The Simpsons and Futurama, so he knows how to blend pop culture with comedy. Beyond the game character cameos, there are plenty of references that only core gamers will connect with, but Moore said the sense of nostalgia that this film evokes has enabled people of all ages to connect with these characters. Both Moore and Spencer, along with the majority of the team, are gamers.
“It’s been like a lifetime of research to do this movie, and a lot of money; a lot of quarters,” said Moore. “I paid my way, literally, to do this movie. This last year while making Wreck-It Ralph, I’d work during the day and then go home and play Saints Row: The Third.
“For some reason, that one just got its talons into me. I could not wait to get back home to play. It was like, ‘I know I can destroy the city with a tank faster. I know I can. I can blow up more.’”
The team actually has a real-life replica of the arcade from the movie inside their studio, where a dozen classic arcade games like Space Invaders, Dig Dug and Q*bert got plenty of use. Every few weeks the games would be swapped out to keep the arcade fresh. One title that fans will be able to play at an arcade, mall or movie theater soon is Fix-It Felix Jr. Disney enlisted a classic game developer to create a real-life version of the arcade game from the movie, complete with a CRT screen and an aged cabinet that looks like it’s been around. (In the movie, Fix-It Felix is celebrating its 30th Anniversary.)
“We quietly enlisted a developer to create this arcade game,” said Spencer. “We wanted them to use a motherboard from the 1980s to actually create the game. We wanted all the limitations that existed back then to be still applicable. We wanted to use a CRT screen to make it feel and look like the balloon that happens on the CRT screen. Now that we have this great game, we’re going to get it out there for people to play.”
And while there is a quarter slot, the game will be free-to-play. Activision is also releasing a couple of games for Nintendo platforms based on the film, although these are original 2D games that feature characters and worlds from the films. Ralph and a custom tow truck are also jumping into Sega’s new console racer, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.
Both Spencer and Moore are game for more interactive adventures — in addition to more movies — should audiences connect with these characters. After seeing 30 minutes and wanting to come back for more, Disney should have a new franchise on its hands once Wreck-It Ralph hits theaters on November 2.