Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Toon-arama: Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

by tryanmax
I have very mixed feelings about this film. From the standpoint of a children’s movie, there’s really nothing wrong with it. It doesn’t really stand out from the pack, but there’s a lot to enjoy. I’ve watched this one with my kids many times and I’m not sick of it yet. On the other hand, the film is about video games and was heavily marketed as such. From that perspective, the movie leaves a lot to be desired. It’s from that perspective that I’m going to examine it.

In a nutshell, Wreck-It Ralph is Toy Story with video games, except that the toy/child dynamic is completely reversed. The game characters have no emotional attachment to the players and instead of eagerly awaiting playtime with the children, they refer to what they do as work. And not every one is happy with his job.
Enter Ralph. He’s been the bad guy in a single-screen platform arcade game for 30 years and he’s tired of it. He gets no respect from the other characters in his game, the Bad-Anon support group isn’t helping, and the bartender at Tapper’s is all out of advice. So he decides to strike out into the other video games to reestablish himself as a hero. This, of course, causes all sorts of problems for Ralph and the other characters, and the only way to solve them is for Ralph to be convinced to return to his game.

This is a really great setup for a story with loads of possibilities. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t deliver on any of them. The promise is that Ralph is going to go on his own quest, a central theme of virtually every non-sports video game ever created. The added implication is that this quest will carry Ralph across any number of game genres. This would be a great way to delve broadly, if not deeply, into the realm of video games without alienating non-gamers. As every new location is explained, non-gamers can be brought in to understand the action and, because gamers are accustomed to near-constant exposition, it wouldn’t put them off in the slightest.
This is, in fact, how Ralph handles the location changes. However, it only occurs a small number of times because there are very few locations. And remember how specific I was before about non-sports games? Well, after a brief adventure inside a first person shooter—which is hilariously rewarding for audiences—Ralph quickly ends up inside a racing game and there he spends the rest of the film. The name of the racing game is Sugar Rush, and it is unabashedly cute. Honestly, I love the place, including this infectious bit of J-pop which serves as the game’s theme song. But it’s at this point that the quest angle gets sucked right out of the story.

Up to this point in the film, the audience has been treated to all sorts of characters, gags, situations and puns based on video games in general. Characters die and regenerate. Some move about in a jerky fashion reminiscent of the 8-bit days. Others do things like walk straight against walls without stopping. Most everything works according to video game physics or has a somewhat pixilated aesthetic. And a whole bunch of real game characters make amusing cameos.
All that comes to a stop once inside Sugar Rush. Now everything is based on the features of one (fictitious) game. Sugar Rush is a racing game based on sweets and candy, so now the aesthetic and all the gags involve things like lollipops and donuts. The only thing reminding you of video games anymore is the character Vanillope, a glitch who suffers from pixlexia, that is, she randomly scatters into a mess of pixels from time to time.

Ralph steps into the role of mentor for Vanillope who wants to be a racer. So in his journey to become a hero, Ralph goes from bad guy to sidekick. There’s nothing wrong with that from a narrative standpoint, but it doesn’t really fit with the video game theme. In video games, the protagonist is always the guy doing the doing, so it feels weird to take that role away from an eponymous hero. And in doing so, we’ve moved out of the largely unexplored realm of video games and into the very comfortable realm of underdog sports stories.
In the end, Ralph does save Sugar Rush from a disaster of his own making (the fact is conveniently glossed over, but oh well) so he does earn his hero status. At the same time, it renders most of the events that take place in Sugar Rush, including Vanillope’s race, irrelevant. Vanillope’s story resolves strangely and in a way that most gamers would agree makes her game less interesting. Non-gamers wouldn’t notice, but it is still an odd ending. I won’t dismiss the character development that took place, but the film never promised to be a character study.

I’m not trying to steer anyone away from this movie. Like I said, I’ve enjoyed watching it repeatedly. But if you’re going in as a fan of video games, this movie is only using them as a gimmick. It throws up a bunch of familiar stuff at the start and then quickly dismisses the gamers in the audience altogether.

30 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

Excellent article, tryanmax! I haven't seen this yet, but I absolutely see the problem you are talking about. It sounds like they never had a complete movie in mind, so rather than sticking with one idea, they kind of meandered and they never bothered to really think through the things they did.

K said...

From the "if you can't say something nice . . " department - I was impressed with the Sugar Rush art design.

PDBronco said...

Haven't seen it... but reading your review made me think on how games and gaming was handled in the TV animated series Reboot.

There, the "User" was considered the villain and it was up to the Guardian to defeat the User, since if the Guardian lost the sprites who participated in the game would be deleted. So there was an actual risk to the computer (or "Mainframe") residents.

Tennessee Jed said...

tryanmax - well done. It hs been a while since I watched cartoons, but with my youngest recently married, I'm hoping for some grandkids next year :) That means there will be a whole new adventure of toons for me to explore down the road.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, "I'm hoping for some grandkids next year." LOL! You have a schedule?

Anthony said...

Tryanmax,

Without going into spoilers, its worth noting that what Ralph does in the second half of the movie is the quintessential videogame quest and that Ralph saves the world of Sugar Rush from an evil that predated his arrival preexisting evil.

I thought the character growth was a nice touch. Ralph was never a bad guy, but for a while he was seeking the symbol of a hero rather than seeking to become a hero (a choice he made towards the end).

I agree Wreck It Ralph wasn't as big on fanservice in the second half as one might expect, but I thought that was a wise choice. People enjoy fanservice to a degree, but I don't think clever references alone can carry a movie (if it could, Scott Pilgrim would have been a commercial success).

As you have probably deduced, I am a big fan of Ralph. For my money Ralph and Escape from Madagascar 3 are the two best CG movies to hit in recent years. Neither movie matches Pixar's old heights (nods towards The Incredibles), but they are better than the likes of Brave and Monsters University.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, thanks! I don't know if 'meandering' accurately describes it, but it definitely seems like Disney wanted to do a video game movie but couldn't figure out where to go after they burned through the references.

tryanmax said...

K, I agree, the art direction was great throughout the movie. Sugar Rush really is a great world worthy of exploring. It just doesn't feel like a video game once the characters settle down in it.

tryanmax said...

Jed, like I said, this is still a fun one, so put it on the list for when the grandkids debut!

tryanmax said...

Bronco, I remember Reboot but I mustn't have watched it close enough to know what it was about. I think I was too dazzled by the (then) novel computer animation. I sure couldn't have told you the premise.

tryanmax said...

Anthony, I really like Ralph, too, but it still gives me those mixed feelings. I think part of the problem is that the writers didn't know video games well enough to go deeper than references, which is why they switched over to candy puns halfway through. It was a wise choice given the writers' familiarity with the subject.

SPOILER ALERT!
Ralph defeating King Candy doesn't feel like the fulfillment of a quest to me. It just feels tacked-on and like it could've been a million other things. It doesn't feel like it belongs to Ralph. All the time spent in Sugar Rush and all the focus on Vanillope confuses who's movie it is. I would've probably been more satisfied if Ralph had just screwed up several video games and had to find a way to fix them all.

Anthony said...

SPOILER ALERT FOR THE ENTIRE POST!!!

Ralph's heroic action wasn't just defeating King Candy, it was saving the princess. That's pure old school.

Its also worth noting that helping one's charge get to where she wants to go has become a fairly common gaming trope since Ico (nods towards Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us).

tryanmax said...

Anthony, I disagree. The princess thing was purely tacked-on. It doesn't even fit the racing genre. King Candy was believable as an unlockable character, but nothing about Vanillope says "royalty." If the writers thought that fulfilled the "saving the princess" trope, they are more ignorant and/or contemptuous of video games than I previously considered.

On aiding a charge, while I appreciate the attempt, there's not enough in the movie to make it clear that that is what was intended. It certainly doesn't fit with any of the styles of game they showcased.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, I haven't see the film, so I am commenting in the dark here, but if this...

Ralph was never a bad guy, but for a while he was seeking the symbol of a hero rather than seeking to become a hero

... is correct, then that's a fantastic message to include. Substance over form is something that kids should definitely be taught because modern liberalism is all about form over substance.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I guess meandering is the wrong word. Perhaps, change of focus and abandonment of prior focus would be a better way to say it, as if they made three different movies that didn't fit together all that well and then they tied them together by having the one character move through all three with a goal that didn't quite work for all three.

tryanmax said...

Ralph was never a bad guy, but for a while he was seeking the symbol of a hero rather than seeking to become a hero

Agreed, and that is the thrust of the film. In fact, it's not just Ralph that learns it, but pretty much everyone. Which is why I ultimately still recommend this movie.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, exactly, it feels more like it was stitched together. They found a theme that reaches across all the stories, but the action still feels disjointed.

ScottDS said...

I'm not a gamer but I enjoyed this movie - it was cute. I agree we spend too much time in Sugar Rush and that it would've been nice to travel to other games... (real ones, as opposed to a fictional creation for the film).

The movie is worth watching but didn't leave a lasting impression like the best Pixar films.

tryanmax said...

Scott, agree completely. It feels like a waste to make a movie about video games and then spend 3/4 of the film in only one.

For a movie that doesn't really rise above the pack, it's surprisingly rewatchable. If you ever have kids, you'll appreciate how valuable that is in a cartoon. (But if I have to watch that g**d*** annoying little brave toaster one more time. Grrrr!)

Koshcat said...

I see what you mean about the film tryanmax. It was good but it could have been better. Compared to most kids films lately it was pretty entertaining and my kids loved it.

tryanmax said...

Koshcat, I do really enjoy it, and what it is still grows on me. But it's not what it was sold as being.

goldvermilion87 said...

I don't know much about video games, but I basically agree with your entire review.

My biggest disappointment was that I went in thinking it was a PIXAR film, and realized within minutes that it most definitely wasn't.

Didn't it have the "Paperman" short at the beginning, though? That's one of my favorite shorts.

tryanmax said...

Yep, even though they are both owned by Disney,
Disney Animation Studios and PIXAR are separate entities. Personally, I think PIXAR has been slipping lately, so that wouldn't disappoint me.

The "Paperman" short is brilliant and very much in-tune with Disney's history. The technology driving it is amazing. It's not indistinguishable from traditional animation, and I doubt it ever will be, but it's damned close! I would go so far as to say that it's already the best of both worlds in it's debut form. I look forward to a feature driven by that technology. (Provided the storytelling is strong.)

Anonymous said...

I agree with what Anthony said. Focusing only on references and existing game worlds would have hurt the dynamic between the characters and their development. Additionally, it would have limited the audience the movie appeals to (gamers only), while Disney movies are supposed to be for all the family.

tryanmax said...

Anon, a couple of things:

First, I never said that the film should have focused on references or existing worlds. References are not enough to carry a film even if they are fun and appropriate.

There are many familiar "types" of game worlds without having to use any particular ones, but Ralph only experienced three. He never set foot in a haunted castle, or enter the cockpit of a starfighter, or square off in a fight. If anything, the film did a disservice by amalgamating several types into a couple games. The first-person shooter doubled as scifi explorer and Sugar Rush contained many elements that would never be found in a racing game.

As to limiting the audience, I have to vehemently disagree. As an animated film, it has potential to draw in more non-gamers than a live action film by virtue of being a cartoon. That's because cartoons are considered a genre unto themselves, even as they handle other genres.

Saying a cartoon about video games only appeals to gamers is like saying saying that Jungle Book or Bambi will only appeal to people who like nature shows. Besides, if that were true, no one would bother to investigate, they would just dismiss it from the promo, so the depth of the film is irrelevant. Instead, cartoons have the unique ability to generate exposure to virtually any story.

Anonymous said...

I still think more worlds would have weakened the overall story plot and the interactions between the characters. Each world requires introducing new characters, which will disappear when leaving this world and entering a new one. Too many characters will confuse the audience, which may make them lose interest. Besides, there were actually more than 3 game worlds, because we also saw Pacman and Tappers (which are existing worlds).

Movies such as Bambi and The Jungle Book are not limited to nature shows lovers because they don't require the audience prior knowledge about nature, whereas a movie with references to video games does require the audience to know these games in order to fully understand it, unless there's a balance between the references and the actual plot, which this movie does very well.

AndrewPrice said...

I watched Wreck-It-Ralph yesterday and I know exactly what you are talking about. The story is good and clever and funny, but kind of fizzles out near the end. It’s hard to describe, but it seems to lose what it had going for it and it becomes a very generic film.

BTW, I thought the intro was fantastic. It was so full of clever little touches, like the high res v low res stuff and Cuber being unemployed. I really loved the first half of the film.

AndrewPrice said...

Another thought...

Something odd happens near the ending and the whole story that kind of changes gears in a incongruous way. The more I think about it, by the way, I get the feeling they had a different ending planned – Ralph saves the game from the bugs, but it seems like they thought it would be too dark, so they went another way. I’m not sure, but the switch to fighting the bugs seems to be where the story goes wrong.

I also think the girl being a princess and then suddenly saying she's not a princess felt rather strange. It felt like the writers felt like they needed to disclaim the idea. Unfortunately, that kind of leaves you with a girl who is a turd. She calls people names, she jokes about killing the others, and then she basically abandons her responsibilities to the people to cheat in the races.

tryanmax said...

Good thoughts, Andrew. I really have nothing to add at this point that I haven't already said.

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, I think that the line that makes the movie work actually is when Ralph is in the alien world and he screams, "I love my mom!" I think that is the line that converts him into a good guy.

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