Saturday, November 3, 2012


Video game aesthetics have borrowed from Hollywood spectacles, which in turn borrowed right back, but Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, a bright, amusing animated comedy set in a world of game characters in an arcade, is interested in game play on a tad more than a superficial level. In this movie, the games are flexible, imaginatively malleable, and capable of shifting down to their very code. Drawing upon a Toy Story template, the characters in the games of this arcade come to life when the gamers aren’t looking. This allows for a movie of colorful creativity, creating impressive digital backdrops as characters end up zapping themselves out the back of their games, down through the power cords to a large power strip they call Game Central Station, a meeting place from which they can end up in any game they choose.

But just because the characters can jump from game to game doesn’t mean they should. Sure, some of the characters will party it up after closing time, but no one actually interferes with another’s game play. They see their fates as predetermined. At the movie’s start, we meet Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), a massive, lumbering villain in a Donkey Kong-like game. He’s spent thirty years smashing up an 8-bit high-rise only to watch day after day, level after level, the game’s namesake, Fix-It Felix, Jr. (Jack McBrayer), save the day. Felix gets all the medals, but Ralph’s left in the mud. That’s the routine and Ralph’s tired of it all. For no other reason than because he’s a bad guy, one of the only characters in any game he can really talk to is a ghost from Pac Man. For once, Ralph wants to win a medal and be loved, so he throws off society’s shackles and wanders into a couple of other games in his attempt to leave villainy behind.

He bumbles into Hero’s Duty, a first-person-shooter led by a sci-fi drill sergeant (Jane Lynch). He suffers an intense culture shock that’s hardly alleviated when he rockets over to the candy-coated kart racer Sugar Rush (think Mario Kart) and meets a spastic little girl (Sarah Silverman, in an exaggerated cutesy voice) and the goofily tyrannical King Candy (Alan Tudyk, unrecognizable with a loopy Ed Wynn voice). While Ralph is off gathering an island of misfit code, Felix sets off to find him and prevent their game from getting unplugged. The movie has a great deal of fun putting these two guys – one constantly grumpy, the other all gee-whiz innocence – into unfamiliar surroundings. When Felix first lays eyes on the shiny, dark-green-glowing scenery of Hero’s Duty he gapes and whispers “High definition” in awe. When Ralph lumbers into Sugar Rush he, through an elaborate pratfall, ends up stuck in a giant cupcake and beaten by a pair of anthropomorphized donuts (who are, of course, cops).

The plot’s rather uncomplicated, though it takes some fun twists and turns, and the premise isn’t pushed as far as I’d hoped, but that’s not so bad. As the movie settles into a nice, comfortable groove, it gathers a fine message about following your heart, being kind to others, taking pride in your job, and embracing your programming in order to transcend your programming.  That’s all well and good, but where the movie really works is in its breakneck speed and in its sharp, clever visuals, an explosion of homage and imagination, colorfully rendered. Director Rich Moore’s background with The Simpsons and Futurama might have something to do with the fine voice work and the clever animation including mile-a-minute gags and some unexpected reversals within dialogue, but the best part of the movie is the distinct environments of the three games in play. Fix-It Felix Jr. is a world of black out of which a building emerges, simple and blocky. Hero’s Duty is dark as well, but detailed and sleek. Sugar Rush is a place of overwhelming color and hyperactive silliness that lives up to its name and then some. In what has to be the work of a crew of animators who have much nostalgia for old video games, there are a great deal of cameos peppering the background between games – from Bowser to Pong and from Sonic to Q*bert – as well as strategic cutaways to renderings of the games as games.

In the end Wreck-It Ralph is an entertaining evocation of the way games work, where characters use cheat codes to gain access to secret parts of the game and where our protagonist moves through various worlds, defeating various obstacles, to try to win, that is, get a medal and get back before the arcade opens and his game’s unplugged for appearing to be out of order. (What else could you do with a game that’s missing its bad guy?) When, in the final moments, the baddest bad guy catches Ralph by surprise, the goofy slimeball gravely welcomes him to the “boss level.” With such a heavy emphasis on games and programming, the plot never really gathered suspense for me in the way it aims to and, though I liked the characters, I was more amused and interested than invested in their plight. A mention that dying in a foreign game means you won’t be regenerated seems shoehorned in as an afterthought – the stakes seem cribbed from The Matrix and Inception, to name two movies that more successfully make dangerous levels of “reality” a defining feature – and never really comes into play, but no matter. It’s lightning fast and often very funny and cute. Besides, why inject such expectations into what is intended and plays most satisfactorily as nothing more than a blast of affectionate sugary delight with surges of nostalgia for adults of a certain age?

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