Love it or hate it, Disney is forever ingrained in our culture. Starting with Steamboat Willie in 1928 as one of the first cartoons to feature synchronized sound and beginning the long reign of animated features with Snow White and Seven Dwarfs in 1937, Disney has been at the forefront of innovative animation. Though there are times when the company feels a bit behind the curve, we can always count on Disney to keep moving forward in exploring what animation is capable of accomplishing. It’s a bit serendipitous, then, that my first article – in what will hopefully be an ongoing series exploring the world of animation – begins with Disney’s latest and most innovative animated movie to date. This will serve as both a review of the movie and a discussion of the current advancements in animation, but I promise not to spoil the movie at all because Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s 52nd animated feature, is the epitome of what makes Disney a nostalgic playground of the past and imagineers of the future. And while it’s the most recent Disney/Pixar movie, Wreck-It Ralph has a rich tradition of animated history backing it up.
Wreck-It Ralph is the story of the titular character, Ralph, the bad guy of an old school 8-bit arcade game, Fix-It Felix, Jr. For thirty years, Ralph has been wrecking the game’s penthouse while Felix has been fixing Ralph’s wreckage with his trusty golden hammer. And after three decades of the same old same old, Ralph feels left out and alone as the penthouse residents award Felix with medals while ostracizing him because he’s the “bad guy.” But Ralph decides that he doesn’t want to be the bad guy anymore, so he sets out to get a medal of his own to prove he’s more than just the villain. His journey takes him through modern first-person shooters like Hero’s Duty and racer games in the candy-coated world of Sugar Rush. Ralph’s decision, however, sets in motion a literal game changing sequence of events that puts no less than the entire arcade world in danger of destruction.
The film sports an impressive voice cast with John C. Reilly as Ralph, Jack McBrayer as Fix-It Felix, Sarah Silverman as Vanellope Von Schweetz, the glitchy racer of Sugar Rush, and Jane Lynch as the tough-as-nails Sgt. Calhoun in Hero’s Duty. Alan Tudyk, channeling Ed Wynn, gives a fantastic performance in the role of King Candy that makes me want to watch Mary Poppins all over again! There’s also a number of secondary characters worth looking up that showcases the amazing talents Disney can bring to a project. Though many of these characters are originals, what’s doubly impressive is the amount of actual video game characters Disney managed to get into the movie. As a former gamer, I played my fair share of arcade games growing up as well as some Sonic and Super Mario Bros., Wreck-It Ralph is a video game wonderland for the eyes as game characters, past and present, interact with each other in Game Central Station (better known to us as the surge protector), visit each other within individual games as Ralph and his Bad-Anon cohorts do in Pac-Man, or get a drink at Tapper after a long day. This is the type of movie you want to buy on DVD and Blu-Ray just so you can pause it and pick out all of the characters featured. Wreck-It Ralph is basically a cousin of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? where Disney managed to get the rights to feature a number of cartoon characters outside of the Disney line-up.
Wreck-It Ralph is being regarded as Toy Story for the next generation. Rightfully so as it does borrow the idea of what happens when we humans aren’t around to observe the goings-on of game characters once the lights are off. But this movie goes beyond Toy Story, I feel. Wreck-It Ralph sets up a true civilization with its own rules of order that are adhered to by all of the games. The world of the arcade is so much more than 8-bits and high-definition. It’s a thriving community where each game acts as both home and livelihood for the characters within. The visual reality of the movie, within the games and in the “real world”, are stunning. Starting with the pixellated Steamboat Willie at the beginning, the movie isn’t afraid to incorporate the visual style of video games while still stepping it up a notch. The transition, through the game consul, of Fix-It Felix, Jr.’s 8-bit graphics to the 3D animated world within is flawless and I love how the residents of the penthouse still move in a very stilted manner reminiscent of the game they inhabit. And that’s part of the beauty of this film. Though Fix-It Felix, Hero’s Duty, and Sugar Rush are all very different worlds the characters never feel out-of-place when they cross over. And each world is a feast for the eyes, especially Sugar Rush. That game puts Willy Wonka’s factory to shame!
This is also the most referential movie from the company since Aladdin, but it pretty much has to be with all of the characters involved. That doesn’t make the movie any less funny as the references are often more visual than verbal. Though there is a great line when Ralph is stopped at Game Central Station and, when asked his name by security answers, “Lara Croft!” One could argue, however, that Disney was certainly taking a gamble on putting out a “video game movie” that could have easily rang false with the movie-going audience. Thankfully what makes Wreck-It Ralph so compelling is the story. From the beginning, the writers expertly set up everything you need to know before you even realize you knew it. Plot points are sprinkled throughout, but it never feels forced and the many twists and turns feel real and justified. Even a throw-a-way line like “Going Turbo” can have greater significance when all is revealed. I’m not going to lie, the film is typical Disney faire about misunderstood underdogs possessed of their own inner greatness, which is part of why we love the magic that is Disney. Though the characters are not born or, in this case, programmed to be heroic (except for Sgt. Calhoun, who has the most tragically programmed backstory), they become heroic through the journey taken.
There’s also the matter of the animated short before the movie even starts. Paperman showcases the newest and hopefully future prospects for Disney animation. The in-house program designed by Disney, called Meander, is a combination of 2D and 3D animation, which allows Paperman to have the expressiveness of classic animation with the textured realism of a 3D environment. It is gorgeous! Set in 1940s/1950s era New York, the story is about the seemingly inconsequential meeting of a man and a woman at a train station and the power of the universe to bring them together through the most mundane of objects: a paper airplane. Disney wisely kept the visuals simple, using a black and white motif entirely appropriate to the era of the story with only one purposeful use of red. The characters, without speaking, are still interesting to watch. The amount of expressions and gestures used by the man are priceless and the woman, though wide-eyed like most Disney women, makes you believe there’s more to her beneath the surface. They actually remind me a lot of Roger and Anita from 101 Dalmatians. The sweetness and sincerity of the piece reminds me why Disney will never be just a part of my childhood. Watching something like Paperman as an adult is like getting a warm hug from an old friend. It tells me that Disney will never forget its roots but will continue to stay relevant. If this short doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar I may give up on life!
So there you have it! Go see Wreck-It Ralph. You won’t be disappointed. And make sure you stick around for the end credit sequence. It’s like going through the history of gaming! Join me next time when I take a look at a holiday classic with a spooky sensibility!