If The Princess and the Frog and Tangled were earnest attempts by Walt Disney Animation Studios to invoke the past virtue of the “Disney Renaissance” of the late 80s and the 90s, Wreck-It Ralph represents its own take on the current trend of reimagining some element of pop culture for a family comedy. Few will mistake this for a groundbreaking film, but fortunately what might have been a mundanely derivative project instead comes off as a fancifully fun piece of work through the studio’s inspired choice to explore the frontier of video game worlds. The inventive world-building is handily on par with what we’ve seen for the community of monsters in Pixar’s own Monsters, Inc and the toys of Toy Story. And yes, for a bonus there are indeed enough quick cameos and subtle shout-outs to please a generation of attentive viewers that recall a time when arcades were widespread and the NES and Sega Genesis were the hot new things.
In a setting where video arcades live on and comprise a networked ecosystem of interconnected worlds, the 8-bit game Fix-It Felix Jr exists alongside such familiar fixtures as Pac-Man, Frogger, Street Fighter II and Dance Dance Revolution. It all works simply enough: the hero Felix Jr. has to jump his way up and fix a tall penthouse damaged by Wreck-It Ralph, who’s portrayed as an oversized brute furious at being displaced to the junkyard by its construction. For years it’s the same routine: players guide Felix to victory and Ralph is unceremoniously tossed off the penthouse roof by its denizens. When the arcade closes and the characters are all off the clock and unobserved, the good-natured boy scout Felix is pampered and praised while Ralph is left outside and alone in his game. On the game’s 30th anniversary, the world-weary Ralph vents his jealousy to a support group for video game villains (amusingly led by Pac-Man’s Clyde, of all characters), which is sympathetic but also tells him he can’t “mess with the programming” and encourages him to accept and appreciate his identity as the “bad guy”. But when Ralph comes home to discover an anniversary party dedicated to Felix and experiences fresh scorn from everyone besides Felix when he crashes it, he finally hits his breaking point and decides to prove that he can be a hero if he sets his mind to it. So Ralph passes through the expansive waystation that connects the games together and infiltrates the hardcore sci-fi shooter Hero’s Duty, where he finds a way to earn his medal of heroism only to blunder his way into the saccharine racing game Sugar Rush afterward. Unfortunately Ralph inadvertently puts not only that game but the entire arcade in danger when a virus-like alien bug is brought along for the ride, and to make matters worse Fix-It Felix Jr. is rendered out of order with its villain missing. When a game is unplugged its world is kaput and its characters left homeless, so Felix soon sets out to find Ralph and bring him back before it’s too late.
The majority of the film takes place in Sugar Rush, but Disney’s creativity and capacity for artistic detail is evident in the way it depicts each of the three game worlds with their own motifs and sets of rules. Fix-It Felix Jr. is a platformer no more complicated than Donkey Kong, and so its world is appropriately confined and simple while its characters often move in a believably retro and stilted way when they’re acting the way they’re programmed to. Hero’s Duty is a grim and dark rail shooter where space marines are supposed to give their all to guide the player to top of a bug-infested tower, and we observe that the player sees the action from the perspective of what’s basically a robot with a monitor for a head. In contrast Sugar Rush is a bright world of vibrant colors where everything is made of treats, including the ridiculous vehicles driven by its diminutive racers. Ralph is soon followed to this sickeningly sweet place by Felix and Sgt. Calhoun from Hero’s Duty, a tough-as-nails female soldier who snaps at everyone and tries keeping the smitten Felix at arm’s length because of “the most tragic backstory ever” being programmed into her. Their exploits make for an amusing B-plot, but the true heart of the movie is defined by Ralph meeting the affably spunky Vanellope von Schweetz. At first she earns only Ralph’s resentment by stealing his medal, but when he sees how she’s been ostracized and banned from racing for her status as a “glitch” character, Ralph can’t help but empathize and help her to realize her dream and break the rules enforced by the cheerful but strict King Candy. Later, as Ralph learns the truth about the consequences of his actions throughout the movie, we see a genuine and heartfelt conflict between what Ralph thinks she needs and what he knows all too well she desires more than anything else.
I do wonder if the ultimate point of the film will seem muddled and ambivalent to some. The concepts of being “true to yourself” and “following your dreams” regardless of what others might say are long-standing cliches and rightfully perceived as positive things, yet most bad things that happen in the film occur because Ralph dares to step outside of his assigned role. Yet Vanellope is unequivocally supported in her efforts to bend or break rules, just as Ralph acted out against what was expected of him, and a certain element of the cheery epilogue certainly challenges the idea that game characters cannot ever “mess with programming”. So is individualism a noble thing, or not? Yet one can also reasonably see this subject as trumped by Ralph eventually getting much-deserved respect from himself and others as he gains perspective and Felix’s ignorance about Ralph’s feelings is addressed. Meanwhile, Vanellope’s isolation is portrayed as nothing but prejudiced and cruel. Thus, the core of the movie is a story with a message about accepting and respecting others as well as oneself.