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Review

Wreck-It, Paperman!: Technical Wizardry Saves Ralph From Skidding Off Course


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 NetworkShe 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.

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  • Adam R. Charpentier

    I cannot disagree more with your review save one GLARING point: this story, like MANY we’ve seen recently, is more or less color-by-number. How many freaking movies are they going to make about “accept yourself”? That was Brave, that was Megamind, that’s been practically every animated movie for a decade…it’s getting very stale.

    I thought Wreck-It Ralph was the best Disney’s done since Tangled and excuses the mess that Brave was for finally delivering solidly rounded characters of both sexes, and breaking boundaries that started to crumble with Tangled…and then were just left alone completely when the original intentions of Brave were muddled.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not gonna lie, the trailer set to Fun’s “Some Nights” makes me bawl everytime it comes on, and I’m a cynical hard hearted 30+ year old woman.

  • Anonymous

    I saw the movie yesterday, and by and large I have to agree with your review. It was promising, but everything in candy land was rote, and the villain put my teeth on edge. And it creeped me out the way everyone made friends with their bullies at the end….

  • No

    I don’t think we watched the same movie at all.

  • http://twitter.com/jhota42 James J. Reaves III

    i don’t think the villain loved pink, i think he ended up with pink because he stole it from somebody who loved pink.

  • http://twitter.com/danguyf Dan Guy

    I thought that the message was more subversive than that. Whereas mainstream culture these days is trying to tell everyone that they are “born that way” and can only find happiness by embracing their innate nature, Ralph rejects that he has to be a bad guy simply because he was coded that way and using his reason and his will to overcome his innate nature and find happiness as the person he wishes to be.

  • http://twitter.com/danguyf Dan Guy

    How cynical and hard of heart to you have to be to not be moved by Paperman or Wreck-It Ralph? Paperman was a beautiful fusion of hand-drawn animation and CG, with a cute story. WIR was a surprising, deep film with well-rounded characters, unpredictable twists, and positive messages beyond the shallow sort usually found in children’s films.

  • http://monkeylologist.blogspot.com/ Jenny Cabotage

    I don’t hold the thin content of Paperman against it. I thought it was a cutesy old fashioned story that went with the old-school feeling of the animation. I don’t know, maybe I’m not against simplicity of content and plot these days, especially when it’s done well. I’m kind of tired of twisting my brain around movies like Prometheus when I just want to go to the movies and have a good time. And I had a damn good time watching Wreck-It Ralph.

  • Adam R. Charpentier

    I didn’t see that at all. He seemed like a decent enough guy from the start despite being born a “bad guy”. Everyone else had an issue with innate self, which gave him ssues, but by accepting himself he was able to succeed.

  • Adam R. Charpentier

    Agreed. He was playing the Ed Wynian character.

  • Adam R. Charpentier

    lol “No.”

  • Adam R. Charpentier

    I was SO disappointed that song wasn’t in the film…

  • Adam R. Charpentier

    But they weren’t really bullies. Wreck-It Ralph was more or less a remake of the old Looney Toon cartoons starring Wile E. Coyote and Sam the Sheep Dog. The bad guys have a job to do, but there’s a stigma behind the job…when it’s accepted by the bigoted idiots in (er…was it Niceland? The apartment building) the game that Ralph NEEDS to be a bad guy for their world to function, everyone gets along.

    You kind of make it sound like they’re saying cops need criminals, and I don’t think that was the case…

  • Adam R. Charpentier

    Did you (or anyone else) see the Paperman character as being Steve Martin-ish…I thought his expressions were VERY similar.

  • TKS

    So, we’re just not going to talk about how this is the first Disney movie where in a character is given the opportunity to be a princess but rejects it, establishes a representative government, and learns to control a superpower?

    We’re not going to mention that many of the protagonists in this movie were homeless and by the end of the movie the community decides to do something about it?

    These and other themes, We’re just gonna forget em?

    Okay. Disney studios. Must be a shallow cash-grab. No need to make a real attempt to read the movie, or even get plot details correct.

  • Adam R. Charpentier

    Agreed. Harshly. There was plenty of movie in this kid’s show. Despite the color palette.

  • http://www.facebook.com/s0nicfreak Amanda Lee Matthews

    The movie is filled with video game stereotypes from the 8 bit days, right? “Lisping, twirling, pink-loving villainous males” are one of those stereotypes. It’s not an attack on homosexuals.

  • MLS

    Spoilers below.

    “Lessons are learned, days are saved, and noble sacrifices are made in the name of keeping the status quo. But you knew that already.”

    Yes, I knew that from the trailers. But watching the movie took me to the exact opposite conclusion. With the exceptions of the villainous effeminate male the review points out (although there is something to be said about the fact that within the story world, a villain created that character–this doesn’t excuse it, but there is a discussion to be had about the implications of that) and a common problematic back story for Calhoun (which the review does not point out), everything in this movie centers on disrupting the status quo. At the end of the movie, all of the homeless characters, including the two main characters, have found homes, in several cases because other characters were made aware of their privileged places in their society and took on the responsibility of fixing it. Vanellope actively rejects being a princess in a Disney movie. Then, she changes the government system in Sugar Rush.

    Perhaps most important, the “accept yourself” message goes so far beyond normal uses of the theme that the norms of the societies in both games are challenged and changed. Ralph and Vanellope are not just different from their peers. Their entire societies continue to tell them that they are utterly worthless. Ralph is told that the only thing he can do is destroy what the “good” people do. Vanellope is told that her entire existence is a mistake that serves only to threaten her entire world. Vanellope and Ralph don’t learn that “it’s okay to be different.” They learn that in spite of the dominant ideologies of their societies, in spite of being told their entire lives that the world would be better without them, they matter. They matter not just to themselves and the people who already accept them but to everyone, whether the people comprising that everyone realize it or not. And by the end of the movie, everyone does realize it, and they change their values to reflect that. Vanellope and Ralph do learn to accept themselves, but in addition everyone else learns to not just accept them but to value them.

    I think these things suggest neither a tired recycling of old themes nor a return to the status quo.

  • MLS

    TKS covered some of this already. Sorry, I think we were typing at the same time.

  • http://twitter.com/StevenRayMorris Steven Ray Morris

    it’s hard not to be cynical, but I was so pleasantly surprised by Wreck-It Ralph. As many commenters have stated below the film may appear to keep the status quo, but instead it creates a new status quo, one that is a bit more accepting and interesting. PLUS THAT HEART.

    I agree that Paperman is a bit “thin.” *groan

    BUT It was a technical exercise that was pretty and sweet. Totally achieves what it set out to do and that’s perfectly fine.

  • Anonymous

    I feel like “did we watch the same movie” is the question I can ask here.

    No pathos?

    Ralph, ostracized by the Nicelanders, and written off as nothing but walking destruction is able to get past his annoyance at Vanellope because he sees her trying to bravely stand up to the bullying Sugar Rush racers. And he realizes (and it took me, a viewer, longer to realize it than he did) that her obnoxious schtick is all bluster to cover up that she’s hurting on the inside. You felt no sympathy or pity there?

    And then later, when Ralph, duped by King Candy, destroys something valuable to Vanellope in the sincere belief he’s doing the right thing, even as the kid begs him not to? And with tears in her eyes she says the worst thing Ralph could hope to hear given what his whole journey is supposed to mean? You felt no sympathy or pity there?

    Your heart is harder than the hard candy racer’s wheels.

    Ralph’s decision to win a medal wasn’t abrupt. It was because he saw Felix getting love from the Nicelanders, and because Glenn taunted him into it, and he felt the need to prove it to the Nicelanders and to himself that he was more than just what the code said he was. And he got the unpleasant consequences of the rash decision.

    And the “pink loving, twirling villain”? Did you miss who the villain really was, and in what world he was ruling? If he walked around with the sorts of dark, sinister shades that a “real” villain acroutrements, it would’ve been immediately obvious who the bad guy was. This way, the viewers could expect the bugs to be the real threat — and they were, in part. And he did not come off as homosexual to me as much as the wacky-goofy-dotty uncle figure.

    To say nothing of what TKS said: Disney Princess decides she’d rather be President and reform the world she lives in. Her “disability” is no longer any such thing and it becomes an advantage no one else can duplicate.

    And Ralph’s learning that he could build his own destiny offscreen even though the game required him to be a villain. We saw the kindness the moment he gave Pac Man’s cherries to Q-Bert, and that he and Felix got a bonus level including them all.

    It seems like you wanted to bash this film just to bash it, without really considering what it does have to offer.

  • TKS

    Ralph sees the medal as an escape. Yeah, over the years he’s grown to wish he could have his own medal, but that’s not what drives Ralph to venture out of his game.

    The medal is a means to a home. He lives in the dump. Getting the medal is literally his ticket to a better life with a roof over his head and a bed for his back. It wasn’t some sudden epiphany that drives Ralph to get the medal, but an opportunity to fulfill a real world need.

    By brushing this causality off by saying “abruptly, so it would seem…” shows either misunderstanding or disregarding of the plot.

  • Anonymous

    I thought he looked a lot like the guy from 101 Dalmations.

  • Skye

    I’m sure it was a great movie for some of you, but I feel like I was exactly the wrong age group for Wreck-It Ralph. I am too old to be amused by the annoying Vanellope and overdone flamboyance of Turbo, and too young/deprived of any video games whatsoever to have personally experienced the games being referenced. I was hoping that more time would be spent in interesting game worlds, but of course this is a kid’s movie and I should have foreseen being irritated with the amount of effort the writers put into “Look at how cute this kid is! So lovable and mischievous! ADORE THE LITTLE SCAMP, GODDAMNIT!” This movie was quite long for the amount of plot that it had, and I was unhappy with the standard Disney “throw a girl in there for some guy to kiss” move. I guess the lack of nostalgia for the good ol’ days of gaming/general dislike of children made this just a bad movie choice for me.

  • http://twitter.com/nellydreadful Nelly Dreadful

    CynaraM may be talking about the other way around on the bullying front; it disturbed me a little bit how Felix and the Nicelanders and the other racers in Sugar Rush were forgiven, without really going through any obvious process of realizing and acknowledging they were wrong.

    The jerks in Ralph’s game started treating him nicer at the end, but we never ever saw them say they were sorry for how they treated him before. Felix never apologized or ever really seemed to understand why Ralph was upset. The candy racers DID say sorry, but only because they realized the victim they thought was powerless actually had authority over them and were afraid of what she would do.

    So the reconciliation felt a little hollow, because while Ralph and Vanelope had gone through the process of soul searching and becoming better people, the ‘good guys’ never really did.

  • http://twitter.com/nellydreadful Nelly Dreadful

    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.

    ???

    I…. Alan Tudyk was doing a pitch perfect voice impersonation of Ed Wynn, actor behind Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins and voice of the Mad Hatter in Alice and Wonderland. The character was the ancient and archetypal “Kooky Uncle” stereotype. How did you get homosexual menace out of that?

  • http://www.facebook.com/laura.truxillo Laura Truxillo

    “Can we stop with the lisping, twirling, pink-loving villainous males, already?”

    I thought the whole point of that character was to be an expy of Ed Wynn. I mean, Tudyk’s impersonation of him was spot-on. And that’s pretty much exactly who Ed Wynn was, only less benevolent. For that matter, I thought they wrung a bit of pathos out of seeing the car destroyed.

    I’d say I had more problems with the short before hand. It was beautifully done, and once the two characters were getting drawn to each other, that was cute, but while he was trying to get her attention? All I kept thinking was, “You never even spoke to her and she is clearly at a job interview. Stop acting like a creeper who thinks you’re entitled to her attention at whatever time you notice her. Stoppit.” Which is way over-thinking the cute, but it’s just another one of those romantic movie gestures that would be annoying-to-creepy in real life.

    And hey, what about the primary gamer character in the movie being a nerdy girl?

  • http://www.facebook.com/laura.truxillo Laura Truxillo

    How silly!

  • http://www.facebook.com/laura.truxillo Laura Truxillo

    Nah, Felix had his soul-searching moment when Ralph explained that his terrible day was Ralph’s whole life.

    The Sugar Rush people had their memories tampered with. Still doesn’t really excuse the bullying, but we don’t really see Vanelope being friends with them afterwards. She tweaks them along for a moment, then forgives them.

    Forgiveness is always a good message. Personally, I loved the way it was played with in ParaNorman–ten years ago, that would’ve ended with Norman getting back at his former bullies using zombies for laughs, but instead he realizes he doesn’t need revenge.

  • http://www.facebook.com/laura.truxillo Laura Truxillo

    I was floored when I saw it was Alan Tudyk, because my first thought on hearing the character was that Disney had done some dark magic to bring Ed Wynn back from beyond.

    I really hope they have some footage of him in the recording booth.

  • Adam R. Charpentier

    Oh! That too! Definitely.

  • Adam R. Charpentier

    Agreed…oh, that’s another movie we should have been discussing more (ParaNorman).

  • TKS

    Though, Gravity Falls teaches us that “Revenge is underrated; [it feels] awesome!”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Leah-Starkweather/100001774933561 Leah Starkweather

    Crush-it Carl was an amazing movie, I have no idea why anyone would think otherwise. Honestly, it’s probably one of the best animated films this year, and I really hope it gets nominated for this year’s Best Animated Feature, though the award will probably go to either Brave or Paranorman. This was the year that Pixar dropped the ball imo, because Break-it-Bob is way more Pixar than Brave is.

    What I like most about Smash-it Steve is probably the fact that the writers genuinely care about video games as a medium.
    They haven’t just haphazardly thrown in a few references to Pac-man/Cawwadoody/WoW; Disney actually got the rights to use games and characters from Nintendo, Sega, Capcom, Atari, Namco, Midway, and Konami…they could’ve avoided paying all the legal fees by using copycats, but Disney went the extra mile and got the real thing…that says a lot about the importance of games as a form of creative expression in the modern era.

    Besides the vidya references, the basic plot is decent enough, and most of the jokes were legitimately funny. The Sugar Rush scenes are a bit too long, but the delicious scenery and humor makes up for it. The art design and especially the lighting is incredible for an animated film.

    Sure, it feels weird to hear Skrillex WUBWUB in a Disney movie, or having reference to Diet Coke and Mentos eruptions, but internet memes have become a part of our greater culture, and Destroy-it Dan is all about things that were once considered niche and odd ascending into iconic and well-known cultural icons.

    Or something like that.
    Anyway, great film, 9/10 would watch again, GOTYAY can’t wait for the DLC

  • http://www.facebook.com/laura.truxillo Laura Truxillo

    I’m crushed that it didn’t get more hype and do better. From the trailers, it seemed a bit predictable, but everything about it was so unique and charming.

  • Adam R. Charpentier

    Absolutely, the trailers were entirely underwhelming, aside from the soundtrack…it was the exact opposite reaction I had to Frankenweenie, which as it turns out was pretty much EXACTLY like the live-action short film with tons of padding.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ryancampbell80 Ryan Campbell

    I saw King Candy as sort of a throw-back to the Mad Hatter from Disney’s
    Alice in Wonderland. Sort of looked like him, and sort of sounded like
    him too. I, too, agree that he came across as just wacky and goofy,
    not homosexual by any means. I don’t think this reviewer saw the same
    movie we did.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ryancampbell80 Ryan Campbell

    Yes I thought the same thing! I felt like King Candy was a throw-back to characters he played sort of like the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland.

  • Adam R. Charpentier

    I can’t take credit for that thought. It’s what Alan Tudyk said in an interview. When he auditioned, they said, “Can you do ann Ed Wyn impression?”

  • Wolf Plushtoy

    Exactly. Not his strident protests of “It’s not pink, it’s salmon!” That is not a video game character who loves pink.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joey-Gallagher/1328583746 Joey Gallagher

    The way you see Gene alone in his penthouse, drinking away his sorrows kinda gave off a feeling of how he realized how important Ralph was and how minor his role was in comparison. He’s still hiding behind his proud jerky facade, but he’s definitely shaken.

  • Cole

    Ditto on Mad Hatter.

  • Anonymous

    That was foreshadowing. There was actually a ton of it, if you rewatch it.

  • Anonymous

    Have none of you people ever heard of Ed Wynn?! I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!

  • http://twitter.com/yeah_its_me Bri Lance

    I thought he looked Indian, and was really happy to see a non-stereotyped, non-Caucasian protagonist in a black and white Disney cartoon.

    I may have been reading something in that wasn’t there, though. Hard to tell.

  • http://twitter.com/ScarletRegina AnnaRegina

    A lot of the commenters have made this exact point and I think this review showcases why writers need to do their research and understand the cultural influences of the films they critique.

  • Anonymous

    Yes! What Nelly said. It bothered me that the Sugar Rush girls got away with “oh god don’t kill us we like you now, really” and Vanelope just took their hands and bounced off with them. It would have been much more satisfying to see them come to terms with what jerks they were, instead of just knuckling under out of fear. However; princess-renouncing and initializing a democratic process is kinda awesome.