If you need a November pick-me-up, or are just aching to have some fresh, red-hot, blaring pixels pumped straight into your cranium, then get your quarters ready and step up to the all-ages ride that is Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph. An opus to eight-bit games, and beyond, Ralph is a piece of bright, quick, kid-aimed fun. What it lacks in depth it more than compensates for in technical finish, bringing viewers to worlds that are so jam-packed with sugary details, you’re likely to get a toothache if you’re over the age of 10. Strictly family-friendly to the point of stating the obvious at every rubber-burning turn, be warned that if you’re seeking a cartoon with a touch of pathos, this isn’t your game, even if it is a good time.
Ralph is the big-fisted antagonist of old (and fictitious) arcade standby Fix-It Felix Jr., splitting his time between the thankless task of playing villain, and attending ‘Bad-Anon’ support group meetings. Though comforted by fellow baddies from Bowser to a Pac-Man ghost, the 30th anniversary of his game has left Ralph with something of an existential crisis. Abruptly, so it would seem, he fixates on the idea of winning the much-coveted heroic medal in another game, to prove to the residents of Fix-It’s Niceland that he’s capable of doing something good. His travels take him out into the connected games in the arcade via power-strip terminal Game Central Station, first into the high-res danger of Halo-like Hero’s Duty, then on to the go-kart confections of Mario Kart analog Sugar Rush. On his way, he gets his eight-bit bacon saved by feisty, tough-as-nails Sergeant Calhoun, befriends bratty yet loveable wannabe-racer Vanellope Von Schweetz, and makes amends with his nemesis, Fix-It Felix. Lessons are learned, days are saved, and noble sacrifices are made in the name of keeping the status quo. But you knew all that already.
For all its somewhat formulaic drag, especially in the middle stretch, Ralph surprises with staccato bursts of sparkling comedy. It’s been Disney’s pattern to lean heavily on recognizable voice actors, yet Ralph pulls a coup by filling the primary player’s slots with comedy veterans. Where writing falls short, solid delivery from John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, and Jack McBrayer bring the jokes in to land. Everyone brings their vocal A-game, and even crumbling, crusty, no-fun critics like yours truly got in a few hearty guffaws.
But one-liners, clever and timely as they may be, aren’t enough to carry a feature. The concept is well-developed, but the ‘lessons’ of the film, and relationships within it, seemed rote. It could be argued that this is because, unlike certain of its competitors, Ralph seems aimed directly, and exclusively, at a young audience. Yet, it has been proven time and time again, notably by Disney symbiote Pixar, that aiming for a general audience doesn’t mean that you have to lack emotional complexity. While Ralph is a playful ride, make no mistake, it also left this reviewer with the hazy, unshakable feeling that I was watching a 2-hour commercial. Ralph feels too transparently like a product, ready-made and already packaged for our convenience, instead of a knot of artistry that just happens to look good on T-shirts and lunchboxes. While there are hardly any illusions that a megacorp like the Mouse House is in this for the art, it would be nice if they could pretend once in awhile.
It’s a shame, because, all-in-all, Ralph has delights aplenty where the art is concerned. There’s no shortage of impressive constructs to look at as Ralph game jumps from the clean, square simplicity of his homeland to the stunningly accurate textures of the rounded candyland. The film’s expansive set pieces are bursting with color and a certain number of video game references, and it deftly apes the atmospheric tropes of gritty first-person shooters, as well as it does bright multiplayer racing games. Ralph’s real treat is not, as might be expected, in the near-lickable hills of Sugar Rush, but instead in the charming, well-considered origin world of Fix-It Felix, Jr.. From the squared-off splatter created by spilled liquids, to the herky-jerky character animation, it’s clear the minds behind the film have a genuine affection for retro games, and were determined to find a way to communicate that old-school feel so many love.
Thankfully, there’s some new reasoning mixed in with the old. Ralph’s serviceable, if a bit dull, and McBrayer’s Felix is good fun, but it’s the ladies who really steal the show. Jane Lynch’s CG doppelganger is as over-the-top as anything heard from her on the small screen, and it’s a nice twist to see a woman in the macho commander role, even if it shouldn’t feel as big a deal as it is. We remain bereft enough of female action heroes that Calhoun’s outsized taking charge is both one of the more satiating choices, and a hearty source of comedy. Given that the title character’s reasoning and motivation are as programmed as Calhoun’s hilarious backstory, however, it’s little Vanellope that carries the film’s heart. Striking a smart balance between petulant child and unrelenting dreamer, Silverman’s voice is a pitch-perfect match for the spunky secondary protagonist. She’s a fast-thinking, believable young character, whose moments of defeat, exuberance, and a brave understanding beyond her programmed years comprise some of the most touching of the story. Additionally, the film does right by her character, firmly adhering to her tomboy personality. It’s Vanellope’s ending, rather than Ralph’s, that ultimately carries the movie’s memorable, worthy message.
To this series of congratulations it must be added that, sadly, not all characterizations were up to the modern standard. I know as well or better than most that if you’re a minority viewer of mainstream media, prejudiced stereotypes are like finding a turd in your crackerjack box. Even if you’ve cynically come to expect it after years and years, still a nasty surprise. While Ralph is hardly the worst offender this reviewer’s seen, I’m going to echo my own previous pleas and say, “Can we stop with the lisping, twirling, pink-loving villainous males, already?” I refuse to believe a production so expansive in visual scope, so rife with ideas, references, and intricate planning, got so lazy that a vague allusion to the stereotypes associated with homosexual males was the best version of a distrustful character they could be bothered to dream up. Having sat in front of director Rich Moore, not to mention the production designer, lead animation supervisor, and the film’s producer at a recent Q&A, and having heard the thought each of them put into this enterprise, I refuse to believe it even more.
Paperman, the animated short accompanying Ralph, suffers as a more extreme example one of its big brother’s problems; that fantastic, innovative technical wizardry is overshadowing the need for a stronger hand behind the script. The short is beautiful, and the software development behind it fascinating. However, its content is, at best, paper-thin.
One of Disney’s biggest recurring issues is their addiction to aping themselves. In-company references grow weary right around the time you find yourself ripping off a sequence from Fantasia in what was otherwise an elegant, fresh short film. As with big brother Ralph, the way to move forward is to look beyond the sandbox, and play at collaboration with minds that are not your marketing team. The instinct is there in the eye candy, and in the witticisms. Now it’s time for the plotting to play catchup.
Zoe Chevat is a pop culture commentator on various websites, including The Mary Sue and Anime News Network. She holds an MFA in Film and Animation from CalArts, where she was part of the Experimental Animation program. She lives and works in Los Angeles as both a writer and animator, and, as a relocated East Coaster, still finds the first part of this sentence to be unnerving.