29 December 2012

Disney Daze: Week 52: Wreck-It Ralph

In 2012, this exhausted reporter watched, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

The ripe idea for a film based on video game culture had been kicking around the Disney studios since the 1980s. For many years the project would lie dormant before another team was given a crack at it, making various inroads with a production that would eventually be shelved. Finally two veterans of The Simpsons, directors Rich Moore and Jim Reardon cracked the story with help from Phil Johnston. (Reardon also co-wrote Pixar's masterpiece WALL*E with Andrew Stanton.) Moore took over direction of the subsequent film, now called Wreck-It Ralph, which would become his first theatrical feature. The Simpsons connection was apropos because Wreck-It Ralph crams in a plethora of visual gags and moves at the fluid clip of a crackerjack television episode.

The film tells the story of the titular character, the Donkey Kong-esque villain of an 8-bit arcade game who longs to be a hero. To accomplish this he leaves his own game and enters, in succession, a violent first-person shooter and a candy-themed racing game, both of which were developed long after his simple game and provide a host of complex issues to overcome. The production design in the film is a marvel, with the filmmakers having to develop not one or two, but several unique worlds with their own styles and rules. The creation of Sugar Rush, the racing game in which most of the film unfolds, is so fully realized that it feels like a game one would have played endlessly if it truly existed. 

The world extends outward to Game Central Station, a power strip that serves as a transit depot for the characters who hop over to the tavern from the game Tapper to down a cold one after a long day's work or attend a villains' support group. Populated throughout these scenes are references and characters from a host of famous video games including Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter, and Q*Bert. These cameos are more than just winking asides to the audience--although there are several of those as well--they make the world of the film feel much more real. It is akin to Toy Story's wise inclusion of Mr. Potato Head or Slinky Dog.

Besides the detailed and imaginative design, the great achievement in animation with Wreck-It Ralph comes from the movement of the characters. For each game, the animators created a different style based on the game's vintage and by extension its computing capacity. This is most obvious in the old-school world of Fix-It Felix where the town's residents, even when acting in the three-dimensional world of the film, move with the abrupt jerkiness of an 8-bit, blocky design. 

The voice work is mostly provided by Hollywood celebrities who bring their proscribed personalities to the creations as shorthand for their characters. Some of these efforts work, like star John C. Reilly's loveable lunkheaded portrayal of Ralph; while others, like the altruistic hero of his game Fix-It Felix, voiced by Jack McBrayer, does not. Felix just feels like a cartoon extension of McBrayer's do-gooder on 30 Rock. It is nothing more than a distraction. Sarah Silverman plays a glitchy brat Vannelope in Sugar Rush and she brings a wounded and surprisingly deep performance to the girl. Also of note is Alan Tudyk's channeling of the great Ed Wynn, sounding like a deliriously loopy cousin of Disney's the Mad Hatter.

The worst aspect of the film comes from the songs which are loud, bland filler that would slot in just fine alongside the other disposable pop pumped out on the Radio Disney airwaves. Thankfully, there are only a couple of these egregious earworms littered across the film. For example, a scene of emotional triumph when Vannelope races her first car is completely sabotaged by a cast-off Rihanna track called ironically "Shut Up and Drive". The worst track however is by Buckner & Garcia, novelty artists who infamously composed the song "Pac-Man Fever" and try to achieve a similar feat with "Wreck It, Wreck-It Ralph" whose only saving grace is that it plays over the closing credits. 

Wreck-It Ralph is an eye-popping, candy-coated thrill ride through the vibrantly dense world of video games. It takes a cue from the Pixar formula and works incredibly hard at providing a potentially frivolous film with a genuine heart. The emotional crisis at the film's center is truly wrenching and entirely earned. It is followed by a well-conceived, action-packed climax that ties a number of the film's threads together and brings about a wholly satisfying conclusion. Disney waited a quarter century to bring Wreck-It Ralph to the screen. In that time, video games and their culture moved from the fringes and became a well-respected art form. The filmmakers managed to honor this medium and create a crowd-pleasing piece of art in the process.  

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