The 1980s were the Decade of the Arcade. Propelled by the success of such classics as Pac-Man, Galaga, and the original Super Mario Bros., the video arcade became a fixture of modern culture. However, as home consoles and personal computing technology became more powerful, at-home gaming began to eclipse the shared experience of the coin-op. By the late 90s, the arcade was on the decline.
But somehow, in the world of Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, Litwak’s Arcade has managed to stay open for over 30 years, and this venue provides the setting for the titular hero’s adventures.
Wreck-It Ralph is a career bad guy in the game Fix-It Felix Jr.. Every day he smashes up Niceland’s apartments, gets thrown off the roof after Felix repairs the damage, and repeats the process level after level until the arcade closes. As the game’s hero, Felix gets pies, parties, medals, and the approbation of the Nicelanders; Ralph gets to go home to the dump. After 30 years of the gig, he’s had enough.
So Ralph heads to Game Central Station, goes AWOL from his game, and sets out in search of an opportunity to prove he can be a hero. He manages to earn a medal in the arcade’s new Halo-esque shooter “Hero’s Duty,” but in the process he ends up cross-contaminating the candy-themed go-kart racer “Sugar Rush” with a robotic insect enemy. It’s up to Ralph to fix the wreck he’s made before the arcade’s game machines start going haywire and getting unplugged.
Ralph’s relatability is among the film’s strongest points. Audience members can easily find something to identify with in his questions about his role and identity as the low guy on the totem pole; he’s stuck, frustrated, and grappling with a quarter-life crisis. The movie opens with Ralph voicing his dissatisfaction at a support group for game villains, and it’s no mistake that the scene featured prominently in the trailers. When Ralph befriends a sharp-tongued outcast Sugar Rush racer named Vanellope von Schweetz, their rapport drives the second half of the movie as they team up to get Vanellope a slot in the game’s daily roster—and later to save the game itself.
Another of Wreck-It Ralph‘s strengths is how it brings video games to life on the big screen. A la Toy Story, it’s a look into the secret lives of video game characters: how they feel about their roles, what they do in their off-hours, what they want and what they fear. At its best moments, it captures what makes us want to step into these characters’ shoes and interact with their digital worlds. The voice cast is well-selected and plays their roles to the hilt—Jack McBrayer in particular was born to play the gung-ho, squeaky-clean Fix-It Felix. The characters have an iconic appeal and a lot of heart. When Ralph smashes up Vanellope’s kart to keep her out of the qualifying race, insisting that it’s for her own good, the scene hit me in the chest, and I cheered for him as he raced toward the film’s climax to set right the wreckage from all his mistakes.
The classic cameos and gaming gags make the whole show tons of fun, as well. The punster in me loved the wordplay such as King Candy’s “fungeon” and Vanellope’s glitchy “pixlexia.” The 3D-rendered characters and environments are well-animated, but they’re also complemented by pixelated, sprite-based graphics, another nice touch. When the Bad-Anon meeting concludes, it’s revealed that it occurred in the central box of a Pac-Man level, and 16×16 sprites of Ralph, Bowser, M.Bison, and others leave for Game Central Station via the level’s side-tunnel. The action in the modern FPS Hero’s Duty is dark and frenetic, and the Sugar Rush “set design” packs its tracks with giant gumball boulders, cherry bombs, and crazy ramps over milk chocolate rivers. The “kart baking” mini-game sequence by which Ralph and Vanellope construct a racing vehicle is fantastically fun, and the scene where the two of them learn how to drive the kart is the most successful training montage I’ve ever seen. Video games are incredibly weird—the best-selling game franchise of all time features a plumber who increases in size by grabbing mushrooms and jumps on other, evil mushrooms. When Ralph grapples with a robotic bug in a sci-fi escape pod crashing through cotton-candy clouds into a candy cane forest, it’s one of many moments that capture that manic video-game surreality.
The film is not without its warts, though. The script is generally on-target, occasionally sharpens its wit for a pointed one-liner, but at points turns obnoxious or dull. There’s a surfeit of hit-or-miss lowest-common-denominator gags, e.g. a stream of “Hero’s Doody” jokes from Vanellope which is only partially redeemed from unfunniness by its machine-gun relentlessness. The film’s potty humor is more potty than humorous, with frequent references to biological and excretory functions (“go[ing] pee-pee in your big boy pants,” “It’ll make Felix’s medals wet their pants,” etc.), and the concept of “vurping” (vomiting while burping) is not nearly as entertaining as Vanellope thinks it is. At such points, the script is lackluster where it ought to bristle with wit; the slapstick, while still occasionally obnoxious, is generally more successful.
Ultimately, Wreck-It Ralph has a lot in common with its protagonist: amiable, funny, a little foul-smelling at times, but willing to put its heart into it when the chips are down. Die-hard video game enthusiasts of all ages will easily find it worth the full price of a ticket. More casual gamers or animation fans may want to catch a matinee or wait for its release in dollar theaters or on DVD. It’s a solid video game movie—and while video game movies have fallen flat more often than not, Ralph is a film that can stand on its own two feet.