The premise of Wreck-It Ralph is a digital-age version of Toy Story (1995). It all takes place in a happy little arcade, strangely free of graffiti, litter and juvenile delinquents. Every night, when the arcade closes down, the characters in the games are free to wander between consoles, socialize and goof around. Only one catch: if you die outside your own game you don’t regenerate. But I’m sure that won’t become an issue.
We are introduced to this world by Wreck-It Ralph himself (John C. Reilly), the miscast, wheel grinding, time-card punching “bad guy” of the game Fix-It Felix, Jr. He explains how, all day, he has to demolish a building with his comically big hands, so the hero, Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer), can save the day. After which, Felix is rewarded with a pie on the roof of the building, and the tenants throw Ralph off the roof, into a mud puddle. Ralph shares his frustration at seeing his contribution to the game go unrecognized while Felix is given pies and medals. Ralph is talking to a villain support group, whose members extol the value of being a villain. As Zangief, from Street Fighter II, says “If Zangeif was good, who would crush man’s head like sparrow’s egg between thighs?” They tell him that it’s a villain’s lot in life to get beat over and over, and watch the hero get the glory, and that his life will be happier if he excepts it.
And I just have to make a comment here. Don’t villains usually win in video games? Especially in arcade games, which are designed to keep you pumping quarters in. Realistically, it would be Felix getting thrown into the mud 99% of the time. Oh, well.
Ralph has his inevitable confrontation with the rest of the game’s cast (Nicelanders, they are called), in which Mayor Gene (Raymond Perci) tells Ralph that bad guys don’t get medals, and if Ralph ever won a medal (since he clearly never will) the Nicelanders would let him live at the top of the building in the penthouse. Ralph calls his bluff, and storms off to do just that. Something that’s amusing to watch here, and in certain other scenes, is the choppy, blocky way in which the characters move. It is, of course, intentional, and it does bring out the feel of a 1980s platform game, which is what this is supposed to be, but I’m sure it also saved Disney several tens of thousands of dollars.
Ralph’s quest for a medal leads him to steal the uniform of a space marine from the game Hero’s Duty, a fictitious game that is exactly like 10,000 real shoot’em up, blow’em up, throw-away first-person shooters that you find in arcades all over the world. Ralph’s misadventure in Hero’s Duty is certainly one of the best, possibly the best scene in the movie, and gives rise to a line every parent in the audience will love: “When did video games become so violent and scary??” It also introduces us to Sgt. Tamora Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the model-proportioned, yet tough-as-nails cliché who leads the marine troop. Calhoun’s spittle-throwing PG version of a potty mouth might just be the most entertaining part of the movie, but “It’s not her fault,” because “she’s programmed with the most tragic back story ever.” I won’t tell you what this back story is. Suffice to say, I laughed enough to shed tears when I saw it, because it’s so over the top, and yet just like what you see in video games today. Calhoun is awesome.
Eventually, Ralph also lands in Sugar Rush, a candy-themed cart racing game. The landscapes in Sugar Rush are beautifully rendered, although, if you’re a salty snacker like me, you might get a little nauseous after a while. Here, Ralph meets Vanellopy Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a game character who wants to join the races, but is ostracized from the racing community because she is a glitch, the oppressed subculture of the video game world. Ralph is blackmailed by Vanellopy into joining her quest to buy or pry her way into a race so she can become part of the game, and the two start to become friends. Their relationship is similar to that of Sully and Boo in Monsters, Inc., except that Vanellopy talks. And boy does she ever. She could have gotten really annoying in the hands of a lesser director, but Rich Moore (who has directed voice acting for The Simpsons and Futurama) toned her down just enough that she’s lovable, if slightly eccentric. Ralph, Vanellopy, Calhoun and Felix eventually find themselves in a battle to save the arcade from a cataclysmic threat, and from one of the most subtle, surprising and effective villains I have seen in a long time. This leads to a lot of great chemistry between the characters, and a weird, yet strangely plausible romance between the pint-sized Felix and the arm-twisting, nose-breaking Calhoun (classic pick-up line: “Look at the high definition in your face! It’s beautiful.) I will say, I thought the ending was just a little too happy. There’s a point where it looks like victory is going to require a terrible sacrifice, and the movie would have been more powerful if it had. But, in typical Disney fashion, they had to have everything work out a little too perfect. Oh, well.
To help the reader fully appreciate the quality of Wreck-it Ralph, I thought it would be worth putting my encounter with it in context. My wife and I had previously driven 250 miles. We did this because, for the first time ever, we were going to leave our 2 1/2 year old daughter in the care of her grandparents overnight so we could spend a romantic evening together. On said evening, we dressed to the hilt and had a romantic dinner at one of the finer restaurants in town, then spent some time strolling around downtown under the lights. Finally, we checked into a hotel and got ready for bed. We had a bottle of champaign in a bucket of ice when we slid into bed. We were snuggling a little bit, when we decided a movie wouldn’t hurt, so we charged some extra to our room to see Wreck-it Ralph. At the credits, we realized we could back the movie up in 30-second increments, so I spent about 10 minutes repeatedly pushing the button, and the ice in the bucket melted while we passed the champaign back and forth and watched Wreck-it Ralph a second time.
Yeah. It’s that good.