November 2, 2012

Review – Wreck-It Ralph

Filed under: Reviews — Tags: , , , , — Jamie Love @ 12:51 am

Review Wreck It Ralph
As glorious as working in the videogame industry is said to be, the titular character of Disney’s latest animation feature is suffering from an extreme case of low job satisfaction.

From the glow of an arcade screen, Wreck-it-Ralph spends his days smashing up an apartment complex like a human Donkey Kong, all so that players can trade a quarter for the chance to fill the shoes of Fix-It Felix Jr., repairing the damage with his magic hammer while scaling to the top of the building, leaving Ralph tossed off the side and laying in the mud below.

When the arcade closes each night, Ralph is also left to watch Felix celebrated as a hero while living the solitary life of a videogame villain.

As with Pixar’s Toy Story series, Wreck-it-Ralph creates a world where familiar characters come to life when no one is watching. Here however, they are free to leave their arcade cabinets and socialize with one another, traveling via the electrical cord of their machines to a central hub, the power bar connecting all these games and characters.

Review Wreck It Ralph
Because Ralph’s world takes place within a series of connected videogames, the film seeks to tackle two specific challenges in creating a similar vibe to Pixar’s mentioned franchise.

The first critical difference is that licensed characters from games like Street Fighter and Sonic the Hedgehog already come with well defined personalities, which makes the creation of characters from fictional videogames essential in delivering a film that doesn’t simply devolve into a gag reel. It’s not that it isn’t humorous hearing Ken and Ryu talk about going for drinks after a long day, or listening to Zangief’s existential spin on the role of villains in gaming, but there’s limited mileage to be gained there and the film wisely shows restraint in that regard. That doesn’t stop the film from inserting gags along the way, but it does mean that well known characters are present to lend legitimacy to the world rather than to throw out a signature move or shout a trademarked phrase before vanishing again.

The other deviation from the Toy Story formula is that said toys were always operating in a human world, where the characters of Wreck-it Ralph exist only in a digital space.

The film opens with Ralph at a meeting of videogame villains, where plenty of familiar faces have been licensed to share screen time with characters Disney has created in order to round out the mix. It isn’t until the meeting ends that the perspective shifts to show it taking place in the center cube of Pac-Man’s familiar singular screen, with Ralph grabbing a cherry for the road on his way out.

The challenge therein is the need to remind the audience that this world does exist purely in the digital domain, which is where Disney attempts to tap the rich memes of gaming with varied success – occasionally offering a view of the arcade screens in order to keep the idea ever present but more often through the use of game-like rules for environments and character powers.

Ralph’s urge to earn respect from his fellow characters quickly finds him fixating on the medal Felix earns after each successful playthrough, causing him to seek out a game where he might win one of his own. And this leads into one of two fictional games where much of the film unfolds, Hero’s Duty, a mix of Call of Duty and Gears of War where soldiers assist players in squashing alien insects, and Sugar Rush, a candy themed kart racer.

Review Wreck It Ralph
Having several shades of fun with the Hero’s Duty parody proves as easy as expected, with humourless soldiers and a commander programmed with a particularly tragic backstory. As Ralph’s attempt to claim a medal goes awry, most of the film shifts to take place within Sugar Rush, where Ralph soon befriends Vanellope Von Schweetz, who is an outcast because her character has a glitch that sees her sprites consistently flicker. Naturally Ralph ends up helping Vanellope with her dream of entering the qualifying race that determines the playable characters for the game, all while two distinct threats to the arcade collide and threaten to cause both Ralph’s and Vanellope’s games to be unplugged.

Much like Toy Story’s forgotten and discarded toys, the idea of a game being unplugged earns some earnest tear jerking bonus points with Q-Bert and company left homeless and living in the central hub.

Review Wreck It Ralph
The lure of a giant nod to gaming makes for easy marketing here, but I went into Wreck-it Ralph several shades concerned over how a film with its own story might emerge from the surroundings of several well known licenses. Wreck-it Ralph seeks a balance between offering a nod to established videogames while using the trappings of the medium to create a world as much its own while still familiar to gamers – finding the means to offer characters with desires and drive that convincingly evolves from the idea of living within the code hardwired into those arcade cabinets. The story the film offers finds solid roots in the gaming medium, skating a rather generic formula for its characters in order to keep the story from sliding off the rails along the way.

With most of the film taking place within Sugar Rush, and introducing a great deal of candy related jokes along with the gaming memes, the film could be accused of a bait-and-switch along the way. But the tactic saves the film from hitting audiences over the head with gaming references, finding plenty of earnest humor in that digital candy world while still playing to the rules of gaming. Perhaps more importantly, the shift gains some quiet space where relationships between characters can attempt to form – though it can’t escape a sense of the obligatory need for those relationships to do so.

Wreck-it Ralph plays it rather safe with character development while mining some clever and chaotic events, as the programmed villain proves his heart of gold and the cast eventually finds new comfort in playing the roles they are coded to play. And though that keeps the film from ever quite reaching the rich layers Pixar’s Toy Story franchise achieves and makes for a bit less nail-biting toward the finale, Wreck-it Ralph manages to bring videogames to film audiences with a level of respect and earnest sense of fun rarely seen in the attempt to cross those two mediums.

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