Wreck-It Ralph is the movie I had been waiting for the Disney Revival to produce. It creates a unique and original world, populates it with a combination of familiar and new characters, and brings about a big heart and moments of strong character development. It proudly wears its various references and knowing winks on its openhearted sleeve, causing me to have quite a few chuckles at the obscurity of them. But it is this kind of attention to detail that makes Wreck-It Ralph work so well.
What’s so strange to me about this movie is how its central narrative plays more for the adults in the audience than the kids. Struggling to prove that he is more the sum of his programming, Wreck-It Ralph escapes his beloved 8-bit arcade game to explore the other worlds. First stumbling into a modern first-person shooter, which owes a bit to the imagery of Aliens, and then finding himself in Sugar Rush, which is what would happen if Mario Kart and Candy Land had a kid. Ralph’s heroism will not only save the arcade from imploding upon itself, his game hoping as placed several games in jeopardy, but solve the mystery of game glitch Vanellope.
How does this play more towards the adults than the kids? Well, have children lived enough to feel the weight of labels and expectations placed upon them by society? If nothing else, Wreck-It Ralph plays like a milder version of Fantastic Mr. Fox’s mid-life crisis. Approaching the 30th anniversary of their game, Ralph demands to be seen, to be accepted for who he truly is, and not his assigned role in the game. The loneliness and tenderness of the character is palpable, and you ache for him to feel a moment of sunshine.
Of course, this being Disney, he gets it, along with an easily digestible moral about not judging others based upon their looks, or the roles we have forced them into. Hammering home this idea is the film’s villain, King Candy. Modeled off of Ed Wynn, a beloved character actor from the studio era and the Mad Hatter in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, Candy is the pinnacle of deceiving looks. He’s also the most pleasing villain the studio has produced in the Revival era, aside from Dr. Facilier. The big reveal of his character is screamingly obvious to everyone, but the climactic battle is thrilling, and his character’s transformation disturbing and wonderfully animated.
It would be easy to scoff at Wreck-It Ralph as empty nostalgia, a lesser-brained spin on arcade gaming akin to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’s love letter to cartoons. Any objections to the film are quickly obliterated by the high-energy and colorful designs. Each of the environments is smartly rendered. Ralph’s home world has splatters and liquids landing in square patterns, and the minor characters moving in jerky motions. Whereas the high-definition Hero’s Duty is all moody atmospherics and smoother animation for the characters, and when one of the characters gets drunk at Tapper’s, he runs continuously into the wall, reminding all of us of the problematic controls of modern gaming.
We spend most of our time in Sugar Rush, and it is violently colorful, with its various textures brought to imaginative life. Animation can create and populate worlds that live-action never could, and this is a prime example. The video game worlds must constantly create, destroy, and remake themselves, over and over again. This has given the animators freedom to let their wildest impulses go wild, and the various terrains of Sugar Rush look like the furtive scribbling of a highly creative child, and I mean that as high praise.
Since the Renaissance era, Disney has had a love affair with populating their casts with known names in place of voice actors. This has proven a mixed bag, but Wreck-It Ralph is one of the more successful attempts. John C. Reilly sounds defeated on a good day, and his lovable goofiness adds tremendously to Ralph. Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch as cast to type as an eternal optimist and tough-talking survivalist, but it works. Sarah Silverman is perfection as Vanellope, finding the perfect balance between precocious likability and irritating childish behaviors. That her character is also a little cracked only helps matters. The real find is Alan Tudyk as King Candy. Who knew Wash could do such a solid Ed Wynn impression? Or go so maniacally twisted when needed?
Besides a few moments of plot predictability, if Wreck-It Ralph has a major flaw, it’s a continued concession towards modern pop cultural references. Typically, Disney avoids these as they quickly date the movies, badly, but here you’ll find a Rihanna pop song, wildly inappropriate given its lyrical subject matter, and a cameo from Skrillex. These moments took me out of the film. Disney is better when it gets pretentious, even stuffy, and goes against modernity, when it insists on being classical. These moments are mercifully brief, and Wreck-It Ralph works too well to held them against it entirely. And, goddamn it, it’s just too much fun.