Wreck-It Ralph Review (Cinema)
There are many, many terrible videogame movies. Games are still cribbing all their ideas from the cinema. Until games develop an identity of their own, Hollywood will have limited success in adapting their dull plots to movies. Why do we NEED movies made out of games though? How would Mass Effect be better if you took out the bit where you did stuff, and instead you watched someone else do stuff? Should Hollywood keep trying, and is it a big deal if they keep messing it up? No, I don’t think this is such a big problem. I don’t care that movies based on games are bad. What I DO care about is when movies misrepresent games.
Even the best entertainment seems to get games wrong over and over. For example, Breaking Bad is considered the best thing on television by everyone who knows what they’re supposed to like (snarky), and here it is showing us the equally average FPS Rage. Being played with a lightgun.
When movies get games wrong, they not only show up the moviemakers for being out of touch with their audience, they also damage the image of games. How many times have movies shown mindless, slack-jawed teenage boys jump back and forth while twitching uncontrollably as they hold a controller? Is this what film makers think gamers look like? Have they seen a gamer play a game? We don’t do that!
Worse, even advertisements for games do this kind of thing. You know that bit in a game ad where a kid holds a controller and leans left and right as they play a game while saying “whooaaaa!”? Yeah, we don’t do that either. And while movies and advertisements get games wrong all the time, television is way, way worse. Check out this shit:
So when a movie comes along that (for the most part) gets games right, it’s pretty great. When it’s also a movie that’s explicitly about games, even better. If Wreck-it Ralph had been bad then it could have really angered gamers and tarnished gaming’s reputation in general, at least as far as the mainstream cinema goer is concerned. Thankfully, Wreck-It Ralph is a brilliant kids movie with some really great writing, genuinely funny moments and enough gaming cultural references to satisfy even the most eagle-eyed hardcore gamer. It’s unlikely anyone could spot all the game references on a single viewing, and Wreck-It Ralph is one of the few kid-friendly animated movies that I could stand to watch over and over again.
The premise of the movie is cookie-cutter Disney fodder. In a world where videogame characters are alive, Wreck-It Ralph is the bad guy in an old arcade game that’s very much like Donkey Kong. As the antagonist of the game, he lives on a dump near the pristine tower (that he smashes up during the game) and because he smashes up the homes of those who live in the tower, they don’t invite him to parties or socialize with Ralph. He’s essential to the game, but as a “Bad Guy” he’s an outcast.
Even early on the movie is full of nice touches. Ralph attends “Bad Anon”, where the bad guys from many games meet up and support each other. Some gamers may baulk at Zangief being depicted as a “Bad guy”, but his cameo is funny and he tries to cheer Ralph up with encouraging words and the Bad Guy mantra: “I’m bad and that’s good. I will never be good and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.” It’s a life affirming message that’s shared by the likes of Dr Eggman, M. Bison and Kano (who manages to rip out a heart in a Disney movie). This all takes place in a kind of hub world, that is in fact a surge protector for plug sockets. The characters travel here through power cables from their own arcade cabinets. It’s a nice bit of world building, and helps establish the strange (but crucially, consistent) rules of the movie. Characters in Wreck-It Ralph have lives that continue when the humans stop playing in a way analogous to the characters in Toy Story when Andy goes to sleep.
And the convincing world of Wreck-It Ralph is full to the brim with little clever touches. The first thing you’ll notice is the hilariously bad animation of the inhabitants of the Tower that Ralph destroys. They jerk around like 8 Bit characters. Their saviour, the Mario-like “Fix-It Felix” meanwhile is an intentionally irritating character. In a poorer movie he would have been handsome, arrogant and cruel, but here he’s depicted more as a spineless character who’s not actively antagonistic to Ralph, but is both thoughtless and naive to the important role Ralph plays in the game world they both live in. Everyone in Ralph’s world needs him, but at the same time no one appreciates him. He’s voiced by John C Reily, who successfully portrays him as a loveable oaf with big hands who has no active malice, but frequently ruins things through carelessness. Ralph finally leaves his game and “Goes Turbo” (a term that’s bravely not explained till later in the movie). The reasons for his departure are contrived for sure, but you still understand his motivation and the desire to fit in is something that audiences of any age will understand.
From there its not hard to plot out the course of the rest of the story. It’s a typical story arc thats’s often called a “Voyage and Return”. There are three things that set it apart. Its accurate and contemporary videogame references, the way that it splits at the beginning of the second act, and the fact that it manages to be both laugh-out-loud funny and emotionally engaging.
As to the first point, this is the one area where gamers will undoubtedly get more from the movie than non-gamers. The film makers have successfully secured the rights to use the likenesses of many game characters, and as such the references to games, both modern and classic, come thick and fast. Early on in the movie, there’s a scene where the arcade closes and the humans go home, and you see Ryu and Ken take a break from hurricane kicking each other to have a beer in Tapper. This is the kind of joke you see often in internet clips, but to see it in a big budget Hollywood animation made me cheer out loud. The jokes that work best in this section are those that take place in the background, like when Sonic is knocked over and drops all his rings.
It’s here that the film makers show that they are far more aware of videogames culture than most other movies or television shows. For example, any serious gamer would begin to worry when you see that the games are all in an arcade. Arcades are not the cornerstone of gaming culture like they once were. One of the games is called “Heroes Duty” though, and looks like a cross between Halo and a modern military shooter. As a hardcore gamer, you might worry that such a game exists in an arcade, and I started to get really worried about whether they would show an FPS game being played with a joystick. They didn’t though, they’re much cleverer than that. Instead, they made Heroes Duty a lightgun game; the kind that might not exactly be commonplace in the modern games market, but nonetheless does exist. Time and again they do this, and just as you think they’re going to make some terrible gaming faux pas, they manage to save it. Even the old fashioned arcade contains a nods towards the likes of Twin Galaxies, with its attendant wearing a referees shirt. Wreck-It Ralph meanwhile is seen as a dusty arcade cabinet that’s both unfashionable, but too classic and beloved to be discarded.
In truth though the constant game references became exhausting for me after a while. Scouring the background detail for these little nuggets was fun, but after a while it started to reduce my enjoyment of the movie. It’s just at this point that the movie wisely switches gear and sticks to one game world, the Mario Kart-like racing game Candyland. I was relieved when the movie settled down into its story when it got to this game world, as the constant nods to games began to wear thin and the same cameos began to repeat.
This split in the movie has been the cause of the vast majority of criticism levelled at the movie. Most reviews I’ve read say that the story languishes in Candyland. Others have commented on how the movie seems like two distinct films clumsily stuck together, with incongruities between the genre hopping early on and the more straightforward story the movie tells when it gets to Candyland.
For me though, acts two and three of the movie are the most engaging. Wreck-It Ralph comes in distinct sections, and rather than have the whole movie processed into a homogenised mush, the different locales of the movie have their own character and flavour.
In Candyland we are introduced to Vanellope, a game glitch and also a little girl who has to win a race to truly become part of the game. Again, the movie makes up its own rules and although it can be a bit contrived, it mostly sticks to those rules. During the Candyland section there are still lots of little nods to games (like an appearance by the Konami code), but the story becomes more of a standard coming of age story as Ralph learns to build and Vanellope finds a fellow outcast with whom she has a lot in common. At this point we also meet the main antagonist: the King of Candyland. The movie flirts with the idea that he might not be a villain at all, but sadly this idea is abandoned and he becomes the weakest part of the whole thing.
There are some serious emotional punches at this section of the movie, with one particular moment causing loud sobbing throughout the cinema as the young Vanellope’s dreams are smashed (literally). Bottom lips quivered and man tears almost escaped as I realised that Wreck-It Ralph was affecting more than any other animated movie I’ve seen, with the possible exception of the existential emptiness that often threatened to take over my soul as I watched Toy Story 3. In some ways, it even outshines its Pixar counterparts.
While this may seem like too much praise, I think Wreck-It Ralph is a much better movie than most other critics and movie goers realise. Their misgivings are misguided; it’s not a movie that loses its momentum once the game references stop. Rather, it’s a movie that settles into its groove after a tumultuous opening and tells a sweet, accessible story that’s as resonant with kids as it is with adults. It’s not balanced; it has a weird personality and unevenness to it that you don’t see in most of the kid-friendly animated movies right now. It’s not afraid to cast aside the ties to videogames culture when it benefits the story to do so.
There are some issues with the movie too though. The ongoing joke about Vanellope and Ralph calling each other nicknames materialises from nowhere, and is stolen from Drop Dead Fred. I also had issues with Sarah Silverman’s voicing of Vanellope. I know the voice so well, so to me it never stopped sounding like Sarah Silverman pretending to be a little girl, and I kept expecting her to utter some obscenity or say something inappropriate.
These issues aside, Wreck-It Ralph is perhaps the best game-movie we have. While nostalgia may cloud our judgement, it’s actually better than movies like The Last Starfighter or The Wizard. This is because it understands games better than they do. While those movies were fun, they were an outsiders view of our world, and Wreck-It Ralph feels like it was made by people who understand and love games. People like us.
9 Bad Guys being Bad (but good) out of 10