It’s not minor praise to say that Wreck-It Ralph is the best movie that Disney Animation Studios has done in years; Tangled was surprisingly good, and The Princess and the Frog was excellent. But The Princess and the Frog was more than anything else a love letter to Disney animation itself, and Tangled was a pretty traditional fairy tale story Pixar-ified (and unnecessarily made a musical).
You can tell that Wreck-It Ralph was built out of a bunch of pre-fabricated components; it certainly doesn’t feel like the lifelong dream of somebody who’s had a story he’s just been dying to tell. Watching it is a little like examining the parts of a perfectly-constructed pop culture engine: here’s the traditional Disney story structure where the misfit finds redemption and acceptance. Over by the fuel tank is the 8-bit nostalgia craze that’s going to get man children like myself into the theater, but it’s a more modernized, hybrid engine that runs off Halo and Mario Kart as well. Covering everything is the Pixar sheen of aggressively detailed world-building, and an abundance of references and sight gags. And right here, just at the end, is where the princess fits in.
What’s amazing is how well it all works, and even I can tell it’s harder to pull off a movie like this than it looks. From the trailer, I’d expected it to be a flimsy framing story covering an hour and a half’s worth of video game references. (And don’t get me wrong, I still would’ve been first in line to see that). The initial reviews started coming in, and almost all said that the movie takes an “unexpected turn” — which I’m assuming is the fact that it doesn’t hop around from game to game, but instead spends the bulk of its time in an overly cute cart-racing game called Sugar Rush. In retrospect, though, keeping the focus smaller was probably the best decision they could have possibly made — an uninterrupted string of video game references would get tiresome quickly, and it wouldn’t take long for the delight of “Oh, cool! Zangief!” to turn into the disappointment of “YES FINE IT’S THE JUNGLE KING WE GET IT LET’S MOVE ON.”
Instead, they get it out of their system pretty quickly, and instead focus on just three games, using other cameos where they make sense. (I especially liked the graffiti in Game Central Station; I spotted “Leeroy Jenkins” and “Aerith Lives!”).
World-Buying and World-Building
When I say that only Disney could’ve made it, I don’t just mean in the way it manages to take the standard Disney formula and make it feel genuine again. I’m talking about the number of references, cameos, and licensing issues that only an enormous multinational entertainment corporation would’ve been able to afford. It feels as if the filmmakers were given free rein to reference anything and everything they wanted — did they really need a cameo from Beard Papa, for example? — and seeing a movie with that much freedom was actually kind of exhilarating. After years of seeing 555 telephone numbers and carefully-hidden brand names, it’s just neat to have a movie that says, “Yes, we really did pay to have both Dig Dug and Chun-Li for all of five seconds of screen time.”
Even better, they kept the licensed material to cameos and let the team go nuts with world-building for everything else. The inspiration for the different games couldn’t be clearer, but it makes all the difference that it’s Fix-It Felix, Jr and not Donkey Kong or Rampage, and Hero’s Duty instead of Halo or Gears of War. You’re not simply waiting to see when the next recognizable reference is going to pop up; you’re dropped into a familiar-but-not-too-familiar environment and shown how these games might work from the inside.
It’s inevitably going to get compared to Toy Story — and for one thing, that’s great company to be in; and for another, Toy Story is an obvious inspiration. But I think it’s worth pointing out the subtle ways they steered the story of Wreck-It Ralph in a different direction, and what a huge difference it makes in the overall tone.
The Toy Story movies built their plots around the premise of toys existing in the real world. They built most of the gags and references on the premise that each of the toys has its own personality. It’s worked for three features and at least two brilliant shorts, so they did something right.
It would’ve been easy for Wreck-It Ralph to do one or the other: pull all of its video game characters into the real world, or just have a series of gags based on “what if Bowser and Clyde from Pac-Man hung out together outside the game?” like the trailer promised. Really, either one of those would’ve made for an entertaining movie. But instead, they kept that stuff on the surface, spending most of their time exploring how the individual game worlds worked, and what would happen if you took a few key characters from one and dropped them into another. (I think the reason the Sugar Rush stuff seems so incongruous is that it turned into a ton of candy references, as if there wasn’t enough in the world of video games to play off of).
The result is more similar to the fantastic parts of the Toy Story series: when they show an episode of “Woody’s Roundup” to introduce all the new characters, or when they show Buzz Lightyear fighting Emperor Zerg, or when they have all the characters playing different roles in a kid’s fantasy. It ends up making Wreck-It Ralph a lot more about getting into the video game world than pulling the video game into ours. Even when translated into 3D, a character that only has 3 or 4 frames of animation is still going to move a certain way.
When I talked about Brave, I said that no matter how fantastic the premise, Pixar movies are all ultimately about people. That’s a huge part of why I think Wreck-It Ralph fits squarely in the realm of Disney Feature Animation; while there’s certainly a real-world message in there, the movie is ultimately about fantasy.
It Gets Blitter
That said, the real-world message was another nice surprise. We’ve been beaten down with the “Believe in Yourself!” message for so long, that it stopped having any relevance long ago. One of the reasons I liked The Princess and the Frog so much is that it turned the usual princess moral on its head: its ultimate message was actually “Hang on, don’t believe in your dreams too much; you might be missing out on what you already have.”
Wreck-It Ralph obviously has the story of the misunderstood villain who wants something more out of life; that’s baked into the premise. And it’s got the off-beat little girl who gets bullied but stays true to herself and eventually (spoiler!) comes out on top. I don’t want to sound too dismissive; the dialogue and voice acting are terrific, and everything feels genuine and not the least bit maudlin or insincere. If they’d left it at that, it all would’ve worked fine, and the only thing wrong with it would’ve been that it’s not all that original.
But what is original, at least as far as I’ve seen, is that the weightiest conflict in Wreck-It Ralph is a message about Concern Trolling.
Genuine spoilers follow. The Candy King convinces Ralph — and, I’ll be honest, he had me convinced for a while as well — that he’s not just picking on Vanellope because she’s different, but that he’s doing it for her own benefit. He doesn’t have a problem with her being a “glitch;” he’s just concerned about what other people will think. Players won’t understand, he says, and it’ll end up with the entire game being shut down. It’s not selfish; all the other characters will be fine, but Vanellope will never be able to leave the game. And it throws Ralph completely off course. Until then, he’d been a misfit who’d found another misfit who understood exactly what he was going through, and working together, they were going to finally earn the respect and acceptance they’d both always wanted. Now, he’d gotten exactly what he wanted, but had to ruin everything for someone else, all the while believing that he was making the tough but adult choice for her own good.
It’s actually pretty heartbreaking. And what’s this? A genuine, nuanced, and actually relevant message about bullying and the pressures of conformity, in a movie aimed at pre-adolescents? Characters doing the wrong thing not because they’re evil, but simply because they’ve made a bad decision? A case of someone having the best of intentions and still doing something horrible? And more than that, it’s all a message delivered by a character called the Candy King?!
Even though the movie pretty quickly rebounds into a more predictable structure, it still has those fantastic few minutes where it’s telling kids (and adults!) how bullying really works, in a way that’s not completely obvious and by the numbers. And even though it ends with a princess, it still has the more significant moment where the princess decides that being a “glitch” is an essential part of what made her cool. (It doesn’t explain why the non-Princess “glitch” version would’ve been painted on the side of the cabinet in the first place, but you can’t have everything).
So: great concept, tons of references, great voice performances, terrific animation, imaginative world-building, and a relevant, non-pandering message. Plus, the Paperman short before the movie is completely charming, and a beautiful combination of 3D and 2D animation that proves you don’t have to abandon the hand-drawn style of traditional cel animation to make a 3D movie. I would absolutely love it if this turns out to be as big a deal for Disney animation as The Little Mermaid was, and we get to see Pixar and Disney competing year after year to top each other.