Wreck-It Ralph earns its coins

Video games have never transferred to the silver screen well.  One of the earliest efforts, 1993’s Super Mario Bros, set the bar at barrel bottom and it’s been a slow climb upwards, with multiple setbacks along the way, since.  When the Resident Evil series is the most successful example within any genre, it’s a bad sign, to say the least.  Fortunately, “Futurama” director Rich Moore’s first feature film, Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph isn’t beholden to any preconceived video game character or world.  Instead, the writing team of Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee has set the film’s story within a universe existing within a games arcade.  It’s an innovative approach to subject matter Hollywood has repeatedly failed to achieve success with and the results are sure to chalk up a handful of new high scores on behalf of The Mouse.

The fun and games begin as soon as the standard Disney Castle (a missed trick, surely) gives way to an 8-bit pixelated variation of the Disney Animation production logo.  A life-like arcade game cabinet comes into view as the camera travels inward towards the screen unveiling Wreck-It Ralph (John C Reilly), as the digitalised villain voices over the introduction to the game he co-stars in, “Fix-It Felix, Jr”.  From there, Wreck-It Ralph bounces between old-school visuals and modern three-dimensional high definition animation.  The basic plot set up is simple enough: Ralph is tired of living the life of a bad guy, as once the arcade closes, his existence is one of loneliness and exclusion.  Through the magic of Game Central Station (the power strip the arcade games are all plugged into), Ralph enters fictional, modern games in order to prove he’s not such a bad guy after all.  For all the nostalgic bait carefully place in Wreck-It Ralph’s promotion, characters like Q-Bert, M Bison, Sonic the Hedgehog, Bowser and Clyde (aka the orange “Pac-Man” ghost) appear only in minor cameo roles.  The references are a blast, but Wreck-It Ralph invests in a central cast that, though inspired by the arcade classics of yore, is entirely unique to the film.  Luckily, Moore’s vision gives audiences plenty of reasons to do the same.

Surprisingly, Wreck-It Ralph is a tale of two movies.  The first half is packed with guest appearances from yesterday’s heroes and game-based gags before moving onto a first-person shooter-styled assault that sets up the film’s second half.  It’s at that point that this boy story aims to appeal to a wider audience that may be less familiar with video games and quite possibly more female.  With the central conflict and resolution set within the realm of the “Sugar Rush” racing game, video game nostalgia is abandoned in favour of a parade of familiar sweets and junk food.  Oreo, Nesquick, and Dunkin’ Donuts are but a few of the enduring brands that get name-checked along the way.  Beyond providing ample opportunity for product placement, Johnston and Lee do get some terrific jokes out of the arrangement, including a truly bizarre, borderline unsettling situation with some strategically placed Laffy Taffy.  Yet, the most important introduction made there is of Wreck-It Ralph’s female lead, Vanellope (as voiced by comedic firecracker Sarah Silverman).  Between the sassy spunk of the wee racer and the sprinkle-spattered pastels of “Sugar Rush”, Wreck-It Ralph quickly injects a heavy dose of girl power into its code.  With it comes the film’s central theme of acceptance and being true to oneself.  Truly, Disney animation has come a long way from its constant stream of passive princesses waiting for princes to come rescue them.

The voice talent does a solid job, with Silverman’s efforts standing out the most.  Jack McBrayer ensures that Fix-It Felix sounds remarkably Jack McBrayer-like.  Whilst it’s difficult to reconcile the voice of Jane Lynch coming from the vivacious Sergeant Calhoun, she does perfectly deliver the spikey attitude that gives Wreck-It Ralph its hardest edges.  Meanwhile, the severely underrated Alan Tudyk runs with the juicy role of King Candy, giving a performance that is impossible to place and easy to savour.

Yet, the biggest stars of Wreck-It Ralph are the animators.  Disney may well be competing against itself at next year’s Academy Awards, as this film provides some of the most gorgeous and realistic looking animation seen all year, or most any other.  There are moments where Wreck-It Ralph could easily be mistaken for a stop-motion feature, with depth and detail so convincing it becomes a challenge to remember that nothing onscreen is actually a tangible component.  The screen pops with seemingly all the colours of the rainbow, though, thankfully not quite entirely at once.  Use of 3D here is effective throughout without overplaying the novelty of it.  The sensory overload is compounded with a soundtrack that includes Rihanna’s “Shut Up and Drive” and the infectious Japanese pop stylings of the “Sugar Rush” theme from AKB48.

If there’s one area where Wreck-It Ralph under-performs, it’s the dialogue.  Beyond Calhoun’s surprisingly curt insults, the tone is kept at a fairly juvenile level.  For a film that does target a certain nostalgia market, it’s somewhat surprising just how tyke-friendly it is.  That also raises the question of how much of the film’s first half will be lost on viewers who have no idea what a Q-Bert even is.  Instead of striking an even balance throughout, Wreck-It Ralph tends to appeal to one demographic for a period before aiming to appeal to a different one, resulting in a slight, but noticeable inconsistency that can nag along the way.

While not quite reaching perfection, Wreck-It Ralph is an unquestionable triumph.  Finally delivering a genuinely fun cinematic take on the world of video games, it’s impossible to not find something to smile about in every scene.  With efforts taken to appeal to the masses, regardless of age or gender, Wreck-It Ralph is as family-friendly as films come.  It’s just too bad that once the Nintendo-like end credits wrap up there’s no “Continue?” option.  Much like the most popular video games of all time, Wreck-It Ralph offers serious replay value.  9/10

Wreck-It Ralph opens in UK cinemas 15 February

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