Thursday, June 1, 2017

Review: Wreck-it Ralph (2012)

Wreck-it Ralph (2012)

Rated PG for some rude humor and mild action/violence

Score: 4 out of 5

The field of movies based on video games is a checkered one, to put it mildly. Even the high points like Mortal Kombat, Prince of Persia, the first Silent Hill, and the better Resident Evil movies are merely decent examples of their respective film genres, and the low points like Assassin's CreedSuper Mario Bros., and Street Fighter: The Movie (okay, that last one is admittedly a guilty pleasure) can get outright wretched, such that "based on a video game" is a warning label for many critics and moviegoers the same way that "based on a comic book" was twenty years ago. Wreck-It Ralph, on the other hand, went in a different direction from many of its counterparts. While it features tons of real characters from classic video games of the '80s and '90s, it notably doesn't try to tell the stories of those games, largely because, as anybody who's played a lot of video games will tell you, those stories -- especially those in the older games that this film is a love-letter to -- are usually an excuse ("save the princess!" "get out alive!" "ninjas have kidnapped the President!") to get to the action. Things have changed since then, but even now, games more often than not draw their influences from Hollywood, and so any film adaptation is bound to be compared to whatever movies said game was inspired by. Rather, Wreck-It Ralph takes a backstage perspective, focusing on the lives of game characters at an arcade when their machines are turned off for the night, and it mines a surprising amount of fun, laughs, and heart from this idea. It's a highly enjoyable entry in the pantheon of modern Disney animated films, filled with shout-outs to classic game culture, a story that's about as touching as you'd expect from Disney, and plenty of good, clean fun.

Our titular protagonist, Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), is the antagonist of the game he features in, Fix-It Felix, Jr., a vintage arcade game from 1982 that's been serving faithfully at Litwak's Family Fun Center & Arcade for thirty years. Loosely inspired by Donkey Kong, the game revolves around Ralph smashing up a building and Felix (Jack McBrayer) saving its inhabitants by fixing the damage with his trusty golden hammer, a cycle they've been repeating day in and day out. Ralph is getting bored, resentful of the attention that the building-dwellers heap upon Felix while he lives in the dump, and his Bad Guys Anonymous support group sessions just aren't working for him anymore. One day, after the other characters throw a 30th anniversary party for Felix but deliberately exclude Ralph, he decides that he'll show them he can be a hero, too, and ventures out to look for a game he can win a medal of his own in. Journeying through the Halo-inspired light gun game Hero's Duty and the Mario Kart-meets-Candy Crush racing game Sugar Rush, and running into colorful characters like the hard-as-nails Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the glitchy Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), and the magnanimous King Candy (Alan Tudyk), Ralph soon finds himself in a world of trouble as, without him, his game no longer works properly and risks being unplugged. With this, Felix is forced to run out and find what happened to him.

This movie is a treasure trove of inside jokes for fans of old-school games. While the main characters all come from fictional games, many of the supporting characters and bit parts are actual licensed characters. Ralph's support group is led by one of the ghosts from Pac-Man and includes Mario's nemesis Bowser, Sonic the Hedgehog's nemesis Dr. Robotnik, a zombie from House of the Dead, and Zangief and M. Bison from Street Fighter. Sonic does public service announcements in the "central station", where the characters from Q-Bert were left homeless after their game was unplugged. The bar that Ralph and the other characters drink at is the bar from the arcade gem Tapper. Graffiti references some classic moments in gaming history, from memes to special attacks to plot twists. The most famous cheat code in video game history is used to tamper with a game's files. And that's just what I can think of off the top of my head. This is a movie that was made as much for the parents as the kids, particularly parents who came of age with classic video games and arcades in the '80s and '90s.

But if this movie were about nothing but gaming in-jokes, it would've gotten insufferable in record speed. That sort of thing has its place, and that is on YouTube in the form of five-minute MLG montage parodies. (Don't look those up; that is a rabbit hole you do not want to go down.) Rather, this is a movie that, beneath its video game style, is a pretty standard, if well-told, modern Disney movie with a message about being yourself and not letting the expectations of others define you. John C. Reilly is the straight man here as Ralph, a man whose role as a video game bad guy leads to his quest to try and "prove himself", and he does a great job guiding viewers through the video game world he inhabits, most notably when he visits Hero's Duty and is faced with a culture shock as to just how much games have changed since the Reagan years. Jack McBrayer, Sarah Silverman, and Jane Lynch all get more to do comedically but still manage to successfully carry their own arcs, with Silverman's bratty half-pint kart racer Vanellope easily the one who kids are meant to fall in love with (a big break from the very R-rated nature of Silverman's stand-up comedy), McBrayer playing his charming Southern accent to the hilt as the aw-shucks Mario parody Felix, and he and Lynch's Calhoun taking up the B-plot as they search for Ralph, battle giant cyborg bugs, and fall in love. Lynch especially makes for a great parody of what too many games consider to be a "strong female character", too often mistaken for a boorish lad-ette who's essentially a meatheaded, one-dimensional action hero only with different parts attached to her body, her "tragic backstory" a hilarious swipe at game developers who don't seem to know how to write women. Finally, Alan Tudyk's King Candy is a complex villain, the ruler of his kart-racer kingdom who antagonizes the protagonists for what seem like petty reasons, but which turn out to have a lot more depth and gray areas to them... in both directions. He does a great job with a character whose nobility slowly falls away every time we see him, until by the end we can't wait for him to get eaten by a Cybug.

The Bottom Line

There aren't a lot of really good video game movies, but this one manages to walk a fine line between nostalgic references and a heartfelt story to serve as a welcome treat for both kids and their parents. It may not do that much different on a basic family film storytelling level, but creative gags and great performances make it a very fun watch.

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