“Wreck-It Ralph” exists in front of a video game backdrop, but refuses to be defined by video game norms. It plays with gamer concepts of points and medals, but instead of falling back onto arbitrary, pixilated senses of completion, it seeks to humanize the qualities of the “players” working within the system. Bad can be good and losing can be victory, because what matters isn’t the gold around your neck, but the gold within your heart.

Wreck-It Ralph

At Quality 16 and Rave
Walt Disney Studios

Ralph (John C. Reilly, “Cyrus”) is a bad guy; he wrecks for a living. But being bad isn’t all that bad. Ralph allows the good guys to be good; he is a necessary niche in video game ecosystem. He knows this, and his struggle isn’t really to prove he isn’t bad, but instead to gain some recognition of his importance within the system. So he goes off in search of a “Hero’s Medal” by jumping through the various games residing in the arcade.

This arcade setting allows “Wreck-It” to draw from, and expand upon, the rich history of video games within our culture. Sometimes we forget these characters, their worlds and their styles, have been with us for decades. Even if we don’t notice it, the influence of “Street Fighter,” “Mario” and “Pac-Man” is deeply embedded within our psyche. It’s something “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” evoked very well, and “Wreck-It” continues that homage to gaming simplicity. Joyful eyes will dart toward all corners of the screen to catch the references and pieces of the past and relish in the vibrant fluidity and understanding of the animators.

Gaming is, in a sense, motion. Coincidentally, so is cinema, which draws its name from the Greek word for movement, kinema. The creators of “Wreck-It” understand these things. The inhabitants of Ralph’s game dance and mingle in an intentionally disjointed manner. It’s as choppy as an old Nintendo game, and a delight to take in. Of course, there are also newer games with more fluid motions.

One example, “Hero’s Duty,” pokes fun at the violence and intensity of modern entertainment, while also perfectly encapsulating the tone of those types of games. Ralph jumps into “Hero’s Duty” to get his hands on a medal, and the pounding electronic, nightclub music that assaults your ears, combined with the hectic first person shooter pacing is overwhelming, but also the perfect opportunity for the movie to break the more simplistic fetters of older games. The opportunity is taken, and for a few minutes, the audience is transported into a hectic, pulse-pounding world.

The story takes a turn with the encounter of Vanellope, a scratchy-voiced “glitch” performed endearingly by Sarah Silverman (“The Muppets”). She becomes the center of the film, and Ralph goes from caring about medals to, eventually, caring more for her. Vanellope is purposeless in the game, a bug in the system; her plight, combined with her immature hopefulness, creates a character worth rooting for. She and Ralph share a desire to belong, and while this is a common theme in children’s movies, where “Wreck-It” succeeds is in its definitions of success and the sacrifices required getting there.

“Wreck-It Ralph” ends cleanly, but it’s hard to ask a children’s film to not. Even still, Ralph doesn’t become a Good Guy, he just finds comfort in friends, and in being at peace with the parts in him that wreck and the parts in him that can heal. After years of living in Pixar’s shadow, Disney has finally leveled-up their animation game — let’s hope “Star Wars” gets the same care.

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