I’m sure I wasn’t the only one squealing when the trailer of Wreck-It Ralph first came out late last year/early this year. Though the first few trailers didn’t blatantly give away what the movie was about, the fact that it showed a dynamic video-game like quality and styel of animation was enough to pique a collective gamer interest. This hype developed so much that when the actual content was revealed—which was basically a plot that revolved around a world beyond consoles, arcades, and TV screens—everyone was already an avid follower of the movie months before its actual release date.
The marketing was that good.
Or maybe Disney just knew how to work the crowd? What better way to grab the attention of this generation’s youth than with a movie about a video-game—the topic of everyday discussion during majority of today’s prepubescent-teen demographics? We could also chalk it up to the possibility of Wreck-It Ralph becoming Disney’s latest video-game project, with the movie acting as an extremely mobile promotional poster?
But come on, who are we fooling? It was Clyde the Pacman ghost you saw in the trailer that got you curious, wasn’t it? Oh, no? Okay, what about Street Fighter veterans Zangief and Bison sitting next to Bowser from the iconic Mario franchise?
Yes, Wreck-It Ralph got us all thinking we’d be seeing a video-game crossover movie where our favorite video-game heroes and heroines would go head-to-head against all-time great bad guys. You’ve got to admit that much.
…Well, okay. At least I felt that way upon seeing the full-length trailer. Sure, there was some semblance of a unique plot in there, but my attention was more focused on the fact that I saw Chun-Li walking in the same area as the rest of the Pacman ghost brothers, YEAH I SAW YOU GUYS, and goodness gracious mamma sita what is this movie, why are all these people who are not supposed to exist in the same universe, IN THE SAME PLACE AT THE SAME TIME?!
Such is the typical reaction of anyone complacent enough to assume Disney has lost its touch for making magical and memorable original films and got stuck with Kingdom Hearts-esque mash-ups of a typical fantasy genre with familiar game-quality comedy. On the contrary, Wreck-It Ralph is not that kind of movie. It breaks the current trend of horrible game-to-silver-screen transitions and establishes itself as a heart-warming family film that puts every haughty know-it-all gamer to shame. For Wreck-It Ralph isn’t about putting these well-known bit characters under the spotlight. They’ve got their own adventures to deal with, on their own time and on their own stage. Wreck-It Ralph finds its glory with the one thing most people didn’t expect to shine from first impressions—the story.
Take away all the cameos and references to gaming, and you’ve got yourself the “bad guy” of the story, the titular character of the movie, Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly from Step-Brothers and Chicago fame). He lives in a virtual world where as soon as the arcade closes, the games can come out to play and interact with other games (something akin to Disney’s Toy Story movies). The kids who play in the arcade don’t see them acting independently outside of their games. As soon as the arcade opens and those tokens go in the machines, it’s back to work.
Naturally, Ralph isn’t the most popular guy, not in his game Fix-It Felix Jr., or outside of his game in Game Central Station. That’s because everyone knows his role as a villain, and who wants to cross a villain’s path? But is Ralph really all that horrible? Sure, his one job for the past 30 years is to “wreck things,” (and I’m assuming his video game is paying homage to Mario’s humble origins in Donkey Kong where he has to jump and avoid the falling barrels to save the princess) but surely wrecking things isn’t all that he’s cracked up to do?
Well, not so. Ralph is “programmed” to destroy. It’s something he can’t really change. His very design is suited for the task; huge arms, even huger fists, a mean looking face and a gruff and tough exterior. He pounds on the roof of an apartment complex until he is able to break the windows and displace the bricks from the walls, and his counterpart, Fix-It Felix Jr. (voiced by 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer), jumps up the ledges to fix everything Ralph breaks using his magic hammer.
This delicate balance between the “good guy” and the “bad guy” is what ticks Ralph off. He reveals to a villain support group—and it’s this support group that we see featured prominently in most trailers—that he doesn’t want to be the “bad guy” anymore. He is lonely atop his trash heap of a home long after the game is finished, he doesn’t get any recognition, none of the other characters in his game even remotely respect him…and he knows that he doesn’t deserve such treatment when he is just as important as Felix. The only difference is his programming – his label as a “bad guy.” While he is dissuaded by his villainous peers (oh my gosh it’s Dr. Robotnik!) in his desire to become more than a bad guy, Ralph is also encouraged to accept the fact that he is who he is—cue the Bad Guy Affirmation (“I am bad, and that’s good…”). But he won’t have it. Ralph takes a perilous journey for acceptance anyway, “game-hopping” in broad daylight where children begin to witness the drastic changes his presence has made in games he doesn’t belong to.
All Ralph wants is a medal, just like the one Felix received on the night of their games 30th anniversary, and the medal Felix always receives after he finishes fixing the building Ralph has wrecked for the past 30 years. He wants to live in a penthouse, he wants to be on top of the cake, and he wants a cake—no chocolate please.
So he goes ahead and does just that. And through serendipitous circumstances, Ralph finds a soldier from a first-person shooting game reminiscent of Gears of War/CoD: Modern Warfare named “Hero’s Duty” (with the lead character, Sgt. Calhoun, voiced by Sue Slyvester — I mean, Jane Lynch).If the player finishes the game, they receive a “Hero’s Medal.”
Ralph sets off to prove himself to his peers, and this is where the adventure takes a turn for the better. The movie reveals a whole lot more than gratuitous fanboy Easter Eggs—Ralph’s quest for recognition as a “hero” is actually quite philosophical in nature. The movie subtly tackles issues on identity, freedom, responsibility, and purpose. When Ralph left his game, Fix-It Felix Jr. had nothing broken to fix. Felix goes off on a quest of his own—to find Ralph and bring him back—but does this imply that Ralph cannot be the good guy? That he is forever destined to play a detestable role for another 30 years, and be extremely miserable for it?
The storytelling is exquisite in that there are little to no nose-bleeding arguments concerning the meaning of life, yet it is still presented in a wondrous and neatly-tied up package for contemplation that both adult and kid alike will appreciate. Throughout the movie, Ralph is able to grow as a character beyond expectations, and takes reign of his “programming” by showing the audience it is indeed, alright to be who you are, and instead of trying to become somebody else, you should focus on becoming the best you that you can be—good guy bad guy labels and all. And I’m not saying this is a suggestion to become a bad guy in real life, committing crimes and using Ralph’s desire for change as justification. We see how well he is able to bounce back from his inner conflict when he meets a “glitch character” from another game named Vanellope von Schweetz (voiced by comedian Sarah Silverman). Obnoxious, loud, and incredibly annoying, Vannellope surprisingly plays a large role in Ralph’s change in attitude and perspective on life.
Initially, I thought she would just be a side-character, especially since I barely saw her in the trailers, but she too, grew to become a wonderfully developed character in her own right. Vannellope becomes Ralph’s best friend, and plot-wise, she plays a sharp comparison to Ralph’s own struggles with what he wants, and what he is programmed to be. Vannellope is much like Ralph—unwanted, lives alone, is not respected by her video game peers, and is made to think she had no other purpose than to live as a glitch, and that she cannot do anything else but glitch her way into an accident. Again, the scenes where Ralph and Vannellope interact is where I have to give much praise to the writing. They allowed both Ralph and Vannellope to grow out of their comfort zones without it looking awkward. In a way, it is befitting to the theme of the movie as a whole because no matter how virtual these two characters are, their journey to find their respective answers is so very real; something we can all relate to. As Ralph and Vannellope stand side-by-side in a desperate attempt for something greater than the life they know of, they also mature in similar aspects. And this is highlighted by the way the plot moved forward—instead of drowning out the story with the things that captured most of our attentions in the trailer – a.k.a. all the CAPCOM cameos – , they used something unique to bring the best out of the main characters.
Even Sgt. Calhoun and Felix’s little side-story to find Ralph in the Sugar Rush game made some sense. She follows Ralph in order to trace the whereabouts of the Cy-bug Ralph inadvertedly released into the game when he “game-crashed,” endangering the entire system from a massive “bug” attack. Felix travels with her, claiming that Ralph was his responsibility. And it was love at first sight for Felix, really. Complete with a cute pick-up line that was really adorable, if not slightly inappropriate…? (“Such…high definition!”) Sgt. Calhoun, the cold-hearted, no-nonsense lady of Hero’s Duty suffers from the most tragic backstory of the whole game, but was able to overcome her traumatic past thanks in part to Felix’s affections for her. (Err, I’ll admit it right now, I’m not a big fan of how the relationship between these two developed. It felt rushed and lacked screen time, like it skipped two or three steps towards the climactic kiss nearing the end of the movie. It was completely devoured by the sheer awesomeness of the Ralph/Vannellope duo.) I’m not sure what kind of growth Felix was able to adhere to his life, apart from appreciating Ralph a little bit more, but the Calhoun-Felix dynamic had its moments too.
In the end, Ralph ends up becoming a hero just like he envisioned he would be—with a few minor changes. More importantly than becoming a hero for the sake of being called a hero, Ralph becomes important to somebody who needed a friend. Ralph became Vannellope’s hero even without the shiny medal around his neck. Because Ralph realizes after all the hullabaloo with the main bad guy, King Candy/Turbo, that it isn’t really the medal that makes you a hero; it’s the heart that counts. It’s showing compassion when it is needed, making the right calls even if they are tough decisions to make, and making great sacrifices for the ones you care for—all this, regardless of the “bad guy” label.
That’s what Wreck-It Ralph really is about. It isn’t a video-game adaptation where all these video game characters could live out a mashed-up, cross-over adventure (as fun as that might sound). It is a celebration of a culture so embedded within the fond memories of every child, and child-at-heart. Using these mediums that are so close to our hearts, Disney delivered a beautiful lesson about letting go of the things you cannot control—like Ralph’s programming to play the role of a bad guy—and to take the matters that you can control, into your own hands—like Ralph building a home for himself in the trash heap, which he could have done much earlier on if he realized the lessons he learned by the end of his journey, sooner. It is about finding your place in this world, and learning how to be a hero without deviating from where you are supposed to be. It’s being a hero in your own way, and being a hero where it is ought to count.
Wreck-It Ralph is rich in content and light in delivery, but it doesn’t falter on both accounts. It doesn’t give a half-hearted attempt at profoundness, and it isn’t trying hard to be funnier than it really is. The hype was worth it, because it made us see something far more important than watching a movie about playing a video game. Sure, it was fun to see Ryu drinking root beer at Tappers, but ultimately Wreck-It Ralph is about, well…Wreck-It Ralph. He is the embodiment of our own struggles for freedom against the norm, and realizing freedom is not necessarily the absence of boundaries. (I could go on a whole 20-page essay to explain the themes of the movie, but I’ll save that for my term papers.)
I’d give this movie the golden Two-Thumbs Up. Disney has not lost its magical touch, not at all. And to end, I quote the wise words of Zangief during the first 20 minutes of the movie:
“Ralph, you are Bad Guy. But this does not mean you a bad…guy.”
Image Credit: Wreck-It Ralph