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Non-Review Review: Wreck It Ralph

Wreck It Ralph is a charming animated film, and one with all manner of interesting ideas. It teases a fascinating take on the archetypal children’s movie narrative – the notion that perhaps roles in stories cannot be so easily devolved into “good guy” and “bad guy” stereotypes. It raises all manner of insightful possibilities, drawing on a diverse cast of characters to offer us what amounts to the story of two outcasts dealing with the fact that they don’t necessarily get to be part of narratives that might make them a hero.

Unfortunately, there’s only so far you can bend this sort of hero’s journey before it breaks – or snaps back in your face, if you’re watching a slapstick cartoon. Wreck It Ralph compromises a bit too much in its final act, undermining a lot of what had been its appeal in order to offer a staggeringly conventional ending. It’s a shame, because it’s willingness to subvert so many narrative norms is a large part of the appeal of the film.

Sometimes life isn't two-dimensional...

Sometimes life isn’t two-dimensional…

Wreck It Ralph is a story about narrative. This might be a point where I should insert a cheap shot about how modern movies are supposedly like video games, or some reactive nonsense like that, but I think Wreck It Ralph works on a broader level. Obviously cinema and video games are different mediums, but both are subject to some of the same narrative tropes and conventions. It’s just the way in which they are approached and applied that distinguishes them. At its best, Wreck It Ralph not only hits on these similarities and distinctions, it plays them to its advantage.

After all, the “hero’s journey” is a familiar routine to both avid cinephiles and veteran gamers. The degree to which it is fleshed out various from film to film and game to game, but it is common to both mediums. In cinema, we passively watch the protagonist engage on his heroic quest, and hope that he may vanquish the forces of darkness. In video games, we guide that character ourselves. It might be as simple as helping Mario embark on a journey to rescue a princess, or it could be as complex as a multi-faceted gangster story drawing in all the tragedy and pathos that we expect from such a tale.

Top of the heap...

Top of the heap…

Wreck it Ralph centres on – you guessed it – a character named Ralph, who lends his name to a game that owes a debt or two to the original Donkey Kong. Like that strangely-named ape – apparently named in homage to King Kong – Ralph’s name adorns his video game. And, like Kong, Ralph is cast as the villain of the piece, serving as an obstacle for a pesky handyman to overcome in order to win the adoration of the citizens of the game, and maybe win the player a spot on that most sacred of arcade traditions, the winners’ board.

Ralph has enough of being hated and being cast as the villain in that particular story, so he embarks on a quest to find a game where he might be recognised as heroic – that he might receive a coveted gold medal. In effect, he becomes the hero of his own story, embarking on his own quest. It’s a fascinating idea, because Wreck It Ralph dares to follow through on some logic that seems the antithesis of most children’s films.

Putting Felix in a fix...

Putting Felix in a fix…

Children’s films are typically predicated on the idea that a character has a very clear and important and heroic place in the grand scheme of things. Not just in the sort of vague and general “they serve a useful function in the greater community sort of thing. I mean a literal sense of being special. Cinderella and Snow White are both princesses by the end of their stories. Even in a more modern tale like Tron: Legacy, Sam Flynn discovers his is the uncrowned prince of this strange new domain. Simba is a king if only he can return home. The implication is clear, life has a grand and noble purpose for these sorts of characters.

The best Pixar films subvert audience expectations by exploring the flip sides of these ideas. For example, The Incredibles objected to the fairytale that everybody was special. After all, if everybody is exceptional, then logically nobody is exceptional. In Toy Story 2, Woody discovered the being “special” and “important” was absolutely worthless in the grand scheme of things if it meant losing what mattered.

The (candy) cane mutiny...

The (candy) cane mutiny…

That is part of what was so frustrating about Brave and Cars 2, Pixar’s more recent efforts. They embraced and wallowed in these sorts of clichés that the studio had once gleefully subverted. Merida gets to have exactly what she wants in the end of the film, which undermines the importance of sacrifice and selflessness that the story hints repeatedly towards. Mater is “just being himself”, and that’s a virtue that we have to absolutely respect, despite the discomfort it causes anybody else.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with these sorts of aspirational fairy tales, but they lack nuance and a sense of depth. It’s nice to tell kids that they will grow up to be princes and princesses and that if they just stick to what they believe in that everything will magically work out. That’s a nice idea, and it has its place, but it’s also a bit easy. Wreck it Ralph, to its credit, mostly avoids those sorts of morals… until the end.

Shakin' things up...

Shakin’ things up…

Ralph’s decision to “abandon” his game is portrayed as sincerely motivated, but it’s also selfish. His absence will lead to the game getting shelved, making all its residents homeless. We can understand his desire to be a hero, but sometimes the role that we mark as “villain” is just as necessary. More than a simply dichotomy between “good” and “evil”, there’s more a sense of roles. We need a hero and a villain for the game (and the story) to work. While the character fitting the role of the villain might be an opposing force, that doesn’t make them inherently evil. Or, to quote the existentially philosophical Zangief (aka “the Red Cyclone”), “Just because you are ‘bad guy’, does not mean you are bad guy.”

It’s an interesting and relatively brave stance for the film to take – the notion that just because a position is not glamorous doesn’t mean that it isn’t necessary. The story is fairly explicit that Ralph’s absence won’t mean good things for the residents of his gaming universe, and while his existence might not be ideal (and their treatment of him might be wanting), he does perform an important function in the grand scheme of things. It’s a more complex idea than most animated films go for, and I like that aspect of Wreck It Ralph.

Who's bad?

Who’s bad?

However, the film lacks the courage of its convictions. When Ralph escapes his game and into the racer Sugar Rush, he meets Vanellope von Schweetz – a glitching game character who is ostracised and bullied by her fellow game characters. She’s not allowed to compete in the race that sets the nine characters made playable each morning. Like Ralph, her plight is sympathetic and her treatment is terrible. However, at one point in the film, Ralph is told why Vanellope can’t compete. Again, the notion that she could damage the game beyond repair and lead to the plug being pulled is suggested.

It’s a powerful moment, because it subverts a lot of what we’re used to in films like this. It suggests that sometimes we aren’t allowed to do the things that we might want to do, for our own good. It’s a daringly deconstructive idea in a story like this – Ralph and Vanellope have very understandable objectives and goals, but is there a point at which it is reasonable to expect them to let go of those dreams when the consequences to everybody else would be so great?

A smashing time...

A smashing time…

It bends the expectations of a children’s film in some very uncomfortable and challenging directions – it takes a standard moral in a tale this and turns it on its head. It’s clever, and it’s bold, and it demonstrates that Disney’s in-house animation team are at least approaching the level of quality that defined the incredibly strong work of Pixar. Unfortunately, however, Wreck It Ralph lacks the courage of its conviction here. There’s a convenient reveal and twist, and an eventual outcome that seems to occur because it makes for a happy ending rather than because it makes sense with the plot we’ve seen so far. There’s a sense that Wreck It Ralph realises that it has swung back too heavily towards the conventions it was playing with only ten minutes earlier, but it’s not quite enough.

The result is a fairly solid and entertaining animated film the stops just short of brilliance. To be fair, Wreck It Ralph is engagingly clever. It’s funny, it’s sharp and it’s accessible while being highly nerdy. I love the gags that pepper the film, from Ken and Ryu deciding to catch a 2D drink together (complete with authentic Street Fighter sound effects) through to PacMan’s predictable response to a surprising announcement.

That's exactly how I feel about it...

That’s exactly how I feel about it…

There’s a huge amount of love poured into Wreck It Ralph. The logic of the video-game world makes a reasonable amount of sense (even if Sonic’s helpful exposition feels a little clunky) – suggesting that this has been carefully thought-through. The movements of the background characters from the eponymous game, moving as if highly pixelated and only capable of square robotic jerks rather than fluid free-form movement, is a great visual. (As is the fact that cake splatters in skilfully animated pixel-shaped chunks.)

Special mention must be made of the Lovecraftian horror of the world presented in Sugar Rush, an arcade racy complete with its own sickly sweet veneer and Japanese pop theme music. When an insect-like alien escapes into Sugar Rush, Ralph is able to explain that it drowned in “a taffy pool.” The landscape includes “Diet Cola Mountain” where mentos combine with cola to form a natural hazard. King Candy controls the realm by sending dissidents to his “fun-geon.”

Game on...

Game on…

Indeed, a lot of the video game landscape as imagined by Wreck It Ralph is downright terrifying. The cy-bugs created in the Hero’s Duty owe an uncanny similarity to the creatures from Alien, to the point where their eggs glow green and a baby monster clings desperately to Ralph’s face. At the end of each level, the cy-bugs are exterminated by a process similar to a giant mosquito lamp. It wipes out thousands at a time before they are replaced by another generation.

All of this is rather stunningly put together, with a great deal of thought and affection put into these. Famous video game characters pop up, and the games featured owe a conscious debt to classic games. Sugar Rush feels like a curious blend of Mario Kart by way of Speed Racer, while Hero’s Duty seems like an homage to Halo. The graphics and animation are wonderful, although I’ll confess that I didn’t really notice the 3D that much.

Going for gold...

Going for gold…

The voice casting is superb. John C. Reilly is as reliable as ever, but it’s Jane Lynch and Sarah Silverman who steal the show. Lynch plays Calhoun, the commanding officer in Hero’s Duty, and who gets a delightfully comically ridiculous back story explaining her gruff no-nonsense demeanour. “It’s not her fault,” one of her soldiers explains. “She’s programmed with the most tragic back story ever. The one day she didn’t do a perimeter check… her wedding day.”

Indeed, Caalhoun’s characteristion plays rather wonderfully into the themes of the movie, the questions about self-determination and free-will in a rigidly structured environment. To borrow a quote, Calhoun is not bad, she’s just programmed that way. Silverman is great as Vanellope, with her distinctive vocal talents and her knack for sarcastic delivery doing a wonderful job realising the character. She plays particularly well off Reilly.

Plugged into the zeitgeist...

Plugged into the zeitgeist…

Wreck It Ralph is a nice animated film, and one crafted with a great deal of enthusiasm and intelligence. It has some excellent and thoughtful ideas about the conventional animated film arc, toying with and subverting various clichés of children’s cinema. The problem, however, is that it lacks the follow-through on those interesting ideas. It plays out too conventionally, too comfortably in the mould of the films that it had been so carefully exploring and deconstructing. That ultimately holds Wreck It Ralph back, positioning it firmly on the cusp of family film greatness.

 

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2 Responses

  1. Wreck-It Ralph was one of my favorite movies to come out last year. I think I saw it more times than I saw The Avengers. As a video game nerd, a Disney nerd and a movie nerd, this movie hit all the right buttons for me and I loved it.

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