Given their appetite for devouring competing purveyors of childhood innocence (most recently in their acquisitions of The Muppets and a galaxy far, far away), Disney’s consumption of Pixar Animation Studios in 2006 was hardly surprising. In light of their own ailing stable of 2D animation, Disney’s purchase of Pixar (then riding high on the wave of ‘Finding Nemo’ and ‘The Incredibles’) was a move that both curtailed the competition and instantly produced a new in-house stable: a 3D platform from which to rake in the Pixar Oscar gold. What did surprise, however, was Disney’s decision to pursuit 3D animation outside the Pixar banner. Even more surprising was that endeavors such as ‘Tangled’ would be a fantastic success.
‘Wreck-It Ralph’ is the latest 3D animation released under Disney’s home label, this time steering the House of Mouse away from the realm of fairytales and into the cathode glow of geekdom.
The titular Ralph is a pixelated heavy whose sole lot in life is destruction. As the villain of ‘Wreck-It Ralph’, a popular arcade game from the 80s, he exists purely to foil the efforts of the game’s hero, Fix-It Felix, in a flurry of coins and crumbled masonry. Spending his downtime with a support group for other video villains (who assert that just because they’re "the bad guy" doesn’t mean they’re "bad" guys), it’s hardly surprising that Ralph dreams of something more – specifically, a medal: the ultimate symbol of gaming worth. To this end, Ralph embarks on a quest to achieve just that, jumping through arcade games in pursuit of validation... unaware that his disappearance from ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ could spell dire consequences for the entire arcade.
What distinguishes ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ from other Disney fare is its grounding in a semi-real world that’s not entirely of Disney invention. Ostensibly an exercise in savvy unprecedented license use, ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ plays homage to video games and gaming culture, cleverly exploiting our love and familiarity of existing arcade culture with appearances from iconic characters. This is a superficial gimmick, however, as although the much publicised likes of Sonic, Pac-Man, Bowser, and the ‘Street Fighter’ crew all appear, they’re in fleeting, blink-and-you’ll-miss-em cameos, with no meaningful impact upon the story.
Instead, the film is content to focus on allusions to drive its plot forward, primarily in the form of ‘Hero’s Duty’ (an amalgam of ‘Call of Duty’ and ‘Gears of War’), and ‘Sugar Rush’ (‘Mario Kart’ without an insulin shot). Ralph himself steps from the ‘Donkey Kong’ mould of rampaging gorilla, and for the most part, this works: he’s a vastly more compelling facsimile of D.K., and the film’s refusal to rely on established characters (most conspicuously the portly Nintendo plumber himself) is bolstered by strong original characterisation.
‘Wreck-It Ralph’ plays homage to video games and gaming culture, cleverly exploiting our love and familiarity of existing arcade culture with appearances from iconic characters.
The voice cast does much to improve what would otherwise be an unremarkable Disney journey of self-discovery, with John C. Reilly giving real depth to the eponymous Ralph. His brutish exterior masks a much gentler heart, and like Reilly himself, is more than he appears. Jane Lynch is razor sharp as Sergeant Calhoun, the gun-toting super-solider from ‘Hero’s Duty’, providing the bulk of the film’s laughs (together with Jack McBrayer’s naïve Felix). Sarah Silverman sanitises her signature inner child as Vanellope, the boisterous glitch from ‘Sugar Rush’, successfully navigating the balance between cutesy and annoying. While some of the story contrivances come across as simply that (contrivance), and have a tendency to telegraph their imminent arrival, it hangs together on the strength of these actors and the characters they bring to life.
While it may seem more shamelessly commercial than its DreamWorks rival, ‘Rise of the Guardians’ (and make no mistake, it is), ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ succeeds in every area the former film failed. Funnier, cleverer, and with considerably more heart, ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ engages and involves with what so many children’s films lack: emotion. Although it might seem a departure from their usual fairytale fodder, the Disney spirit is alive and well in the hopes and dreams of these arcade creations, and for a generation of children who’ll grow to love them.