Movies based on real-life video games franchises have a lukewarm reputation at best. Films centred on fictional games have tended to fare a bit better – think Tron and The Last Starfighter. Either way, the game adaptation genre levels up with Wreck-It Ralph, the latest CGI-animated comedy from Walt Disney Animation Studios (as opposed to Disney subsidiary Pixar).
Colourful, funny and smart, Wreck-It Ralph stands head-and-shoulders above recent animated films targeted at the entire family. Although gamers in the 20-40 age bracket will probably receive the most pleasure playing spot the classic video game reference, Wreck-It Ralph isn’t just superficial pop culture sight gags. The film’s surprising amount of heart and likeability sneaks up on you. Even the littlies in the audience, who will probably have little to no experiences of gaming arcades, should remain engaged thanks to the unblunted storyline and bright, exciting setting.
In terms of the plot, Wreck-It Ralph takes a cue from Toy Story. Every night after the doors close on a long-running arcade, the game characters break from the program and come to life, travelling to a behind-the-scenes hub known as Game Central Station and interacting with one another. Title character Ralph (voiced by John C Reilly) has been the hulking bad guy in platformer Fix-It Felix, Jr. for 30 years. Feeling unloved and excluded by the inhabitants of his game, Ralph heads off to other game worlds to win a medal and prove himself. However, his “game jumping” triggers a threat to every character in the arcade, and events come to a head in a candy-themed racing title called Sugar Rush.
The strongest sense that you receive from Wreck-It Ralph is that the film has been made with love. The unwavering attention to detail. Iconic character cameos. Little in-jokes. An understanding of the different gaming genres’ tones and tropes (e.g. nonsense mini games, inevitable boss fights). All of these aspects are clearly being handled by people with knowledge of, and affection for, gaming culture and the arcade’s 80s heyday.
Of particular, continual amusement – at least for the older gamers in the audience – is the character of Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a tough-talking, heavily armoured solider from Hero’s Duty, a spot-on parody of Gears of War and the like. Calhoun’s interactions with characters from wholesome child-safe games, like Fix-It Felix (30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer), provide a good chunk of humour.
In fact it’s worth noting how well the characters in Wreck-It Ralph mesh with their voice actors, but that may have to do with the fact that the cast are comically-gifted character actors as opposed to A-list superstars whose personae can overpower the animated figures onscreen. Thanks to Reilly and Sarah Silverman – aided by excellent animation and some surprisingly affecting writing – you become invested in the unusual friendship that develops between Ralph and Vanellope von Schweetz, a plucky “glitch” and outcast in Sugar Rush.
Admittedly the pace of Wreck-It Ralph slows once Ralph enters Sugar Rush, and it would no doubt have been tempting to send the character barrelling through several more game worlds. However, the filmmakers have kept the film focused on a handful of characters and locations, and the decision ultimately pays off. After a more predictable middle third, the film bounds back for its thrilling, and quite emotional, climax. Best of all, Wreck-It Ralph’s storyline has been left unspoiled by over-revelation in the trailer, so there are still twists and turns to appreciate.
Wreck-It Ralph is a pleasure on multiple levels, aesthetically, emotionally and intellectually. The biggest laughs from children in the audience stemmed from dialogue rather than slapstick, and when was the last time that happened? Honestly, Wreck-It Ralph could be the new Toy Story for Disney if they play their cards right. There is plenty of material here for sequels, and it demonstrates the company finally trumping Pixar at their own game. Highly recommended.