It would have been so easy to get it wrong.
It could so easily have been a thoughtless cash in, a tactless collection of nods and references used to sell a sub-par story to a generation of kids who wouldn’t know any better. It would have been even easier to assume that we were in safe hands. Disney, after all, have earned a sterling reputation and have not failed to impress since Bolt, but let’s not forget this is also the team that brought us Cars and Meet The Robinsons, two films full to the brim with self-indulgence and references that no one really cared about. It may not seem like a bold move in 2012 (or 2013) to expect audiences to understand and care about nods and winks towards decades worth of video games, but as was proved with Cars, sometimes even Disney/Pixar can misfire and in the case of Wreck-it-Ralph, it would have been so easy to get it wrong.
But they didn’t.
Wreck-it-Ralph is the story of an arcade. Sure, it’s titular character drives the plot in his attempt to carve a better life out for himself and yeah, there’s a whole host of stellar supporting characters who help him along with that, but we’ll get to that later. Seeing as you’re reading this on a website called The-Arcade.ie, chances are you’re into games to some degree and if that’s the case be prepared for a relentless onslaught of video game arcana spanning decades worth of characters and technology. From the impossible-to-catch-them-all amount of cameos to the pixelated corners of certain textures and the strange two dimensional movement of what are clearly three dimensional characters, Wreck-it-Ralph is the first film to challenge Scott Pilgrim vs The World in taking video games to the big screen.
In many ways, Wreck-it-Ralph is for video games what Pixars debut feature Toy Story was for toys; one great big gushing love letter designed meticulously to warm the nostalgic hearts of its older audience and delicately open (and educate) the minds and hearts of its younger audience. It’s an example of Disney storytelling at its finest; knowing but never cheap, teachy but never preachy. It’s this type of brilliance that won Disney the staggeringly broad demographic their work now consistently draws and its wonderful to see it applied to a medium close to my own heart.
As I said, it would be easy to assume that this kind of tribute to video games would be a safe bet, but even in 2013 not everyone is into games, even if maybe they should be, and that raises an important question; if you’re not a gamer, if the references and nods are destined to just pass you by, does Wreck-it-Ralph hold up?
Personally I believe it does.
When we arrive in the arcade Ralph (John C.Reilly) has been a video game villain for thirty years. Thirty years playing foul to his games titular hero Fix-it-Felix Jr. and thirty years being consistently loathed for just doing his job eventually takes its toll and Ralph sets out to win himself a medal and prove he can be one of the good guys. Unfortunately this involves ‘game-jumping’; leaving his own game and trying his hand at someone elses, a concept as dangerous as it is frowned upon. It isn’t long before the population of his old game realize just how vital he is to their lives and while Ralph is off game-jumping, it’s up to Felix to venture out into the arcade to track him down. The two stories run parallel to each other and result in something similar to a buddy movie, albeit one where the buddies don’t spend too much time on-screen together.
In fact it could be argued that both Ralph and Felix play second fiddle to the characters they do share screen time with, Vanelope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) and General Calhoun (Jane Lynch), both of whom are the source of most of the films laughs. Vanelope, exiled from her game for being a glitch who shouldn’t exist, is undeniably charming and Silverman does a great job bringing her to life. The general on the other hand is a no-nonsense hard ass who has her own reasons for tracking Ralph and even if the casting of Jane Lynch may seem a little on the nose, it pans out pretty perfectly. Between the four main characters, be prepared to have your feels seriously tested.
Wreck-it-Ralph is a success because it works on so many different levels. As a tribute to its subject matter, it’s glorious but even if the video game in-jokes aren’t your thing, at its heart is a simple story about people determined to change their lives for the better. Anyone who can’t relate to that, isn’t playing the game right.