Although the days of the arcade are on the wane to the point of extinction, there will always be a certain subset of people who have grown up with the influence of those institutions ingrained upon them. During the 80s and 90s, the arcade was a place where you could go to experience something new. It was a place to hide away for a few hours, or a place to socialize in a new way. For many it was an escape, while for others it was a babysitter, reassuring parents in the knowledge that they could leave their kids there and those kids would be content to hover around the games like moths around a light without even entertaining the thought of wandering off.
Over the years though, the evolution of technology has not been kind to these digital meccas. Prices went up, while the convenience and sophistication of the product moved to the home. A handful of arcades remain, but they are few and far between. They will always exist, however, in the hearts and minds of those that experienced arcades in their prime. It is to those people that Wreck-It Ralph has been promoted through trailers and promotional materials. But while the film is certainly heavily influenced by those unique days, the story is a deeper and more universal tale.
That arcade influence is at the heart of Wreck-It Ralph, but it is not the driving force. Beyond the flashy cameos of characters like Pac-Man and Street Fighter’s Zangief, there is a story of a lonely guy, badly treated and shunned through no fault of his own, who befriends another lonely and isolated character that just wants to be accepted. Like most of Disney’s animated films it is a morality tale, and one that is created to appeal to all ages. And it succeeds.
Following 30 years as the unappreciated antagonist of a Donkey Kong-like arcade game called “Fix-It Felix Jr.,” Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) has begun to question his role. After being shunned by his fellow characters at the anniversary party for their game, Ralph decides that the only way he will ever truly belong is to prove that he can be a hero too. Things soon go wrong, and Ralph accidentally leaves a trail of mishaps in his wake, forcing his own game’s hero, Felix (voiced by Jack McBrayer), to come looking for him.
Through a bizarre turn of events, Ralph finds himself in a game called “Sugar Rush,” a candy-themed kart racer (created for this film, but bearing more than a passing similarity to Mario Kart), where he meets the annoying, but endearing Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman). But Ralph’s journey has caused bigger problems than he knows. With Felix on his trail along with the no-nonsense military character Sergeant Calhoun (voiced by Jane Lynch), Ralph’s actions could spell doom for the entire arcade.
The hook of Wreck-It Ralph is, of course, the gaming-inspired world that Ralph and his cohorts inhabit, but that is actually a fairly small portion of the overall package — just as the toys were merely the setup to tell a much deeper narrative in Toy Story. If anything, the promotion of this movie has been a little misleading. Although publicized as a gaming-centric film, the familiar gaming icons are there for only a very small portion of the actual movie. Of the eight characters from real games in the film’s poster above, their combined screen time may be five minutes, and three of those come in one scene at the beginning. That isn’t really a criticism though; just a note that the promotion of this film focused so heavily on its ties to the gaming world that you may not expect to find that it is actually a minor aspect of it (in the same way that toys are a relatively small focus of Toy Story). In both cases the world creates the rules, and in both cases the setup offers some original humor thanks to the subject matter, but the heart of the story runs deeper than that.
Director Rich Moore (Multiple Simpsons and Futurama episodes) certainly understands the nostalgic appeal of the arcade, but he arcade environment is simply the vehicle that offers the filmmakers a clever and entertaining backdrop to tell a more heartfelt story of friendship and acceptance. It comes across a touch heavy handed for the more cynically minded, but there are moments that are actually somewhat touching even if they are a bit predictable.
Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t quite hit that level of originality or emotional resonance of the brilliant Toy Story series, but it is the best animated film of the year. Brave and ParaNorman both have a horse in that race as well, but the humor, originality of the universe, and story that hits all the right emotional notes, make Wreck-It Ralph the leader.
The artwork is also beautiful and expressive, and the characters emote a great deal. Anytime an expression alone can generate big laughs are garner an emotional response from the audience, you know the designers did something very right. The voice cast is also involved in the story, not just reading dialogue. Even when the film does begin to stray into predictable territory – and it does so heavily, especially at the end with the twist you’ll see coming from a mile away – the art can help keep you engaged.
Although the “hidden world of gaming” promised by the advertising is actually more of a background than a feature, Wreck-It Ralph has more than enough on its own merits to make a worthy entry into the Walt Disney vaults. There is a simple, but universal story at play that will appeal to all ages, and it succeeds because of the sharp writing, endearing animation, and great voice work. It is a touch formulaic, but ultimately satisfying and worth the time. Your inner child that still yearns for the days of the arcade will thank you for it.
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