Disney Animation Studios has been slowly clawing its way back to the fore after the 2000s saw it deliver a string of disappointing and/or under-performing pictures. Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, Home on the Range, Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons don’t seem to be remembered too fondly. Most recently, however, Bolt was rather enjoyable and Tangled kind of felt like Disney had got its old-school groove back. Now, with Wreck-It Ralph, they have delivered something of Pixar-like quality.
The film is most easily described as Tron meets Toy Story. Thus, the characters that populate video games are sentient and live their own lives whenever we’re not playing them. Fix-It Felix Jnr is a classic arcade game that has stood the test of time. Our central character, however, is the bad guy, Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly). It’s his lot in life to destroy things so that Felix can leap in and save the day. Ralph is fed up with this and wants nothing more than a little recognition for his hard work – after all, without him, the game wouldn’t succeed. Thus begins his journey of self-discovery.
All the video game characters in the arcade can travel between the different machines, dipping into another game at will. The film does a great job of explaining the mechanics of the world, and the only part that doesn’t make sense is the fact that the film still pretends that arcades are relevant. I don’t know what it’s like in other countries, but since the late 90s, arcades have become shadows of their former selves. These days, when you pass one it’s crammed with rhythm games, claw prize machines and not much else. Not so in Wreck-It Ralph; here we have an arcade in all its 80s glory, except filled with contemporary machines. It’s only a minor quibble, but it seems strange that the film ignores the role of home consoles.
As you would expect, Wreck-It Ralph is filled to the brim with gaming references. As a pretty serious gamer myself, I’m sure that even I couldn’t pick them all up, and it’s clear that repeat viewings will be rewarded. A number of actual gaming characters make an appearance, notably those from ‘Pac-Man’, ‘Street Fighter’, ‘Super Mario’, ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ and ‘Q*bert’ franchises, but for the most part the film focuses on the games it has created. This makes sense from a storytelling perspective, but it is disappointing that we spend so much time in ‘Sugar Rush’, a candy-themed racing kart game.
Wreck-It Ralph hits all the emotional and narrative beats from Screenwriting 101, but it does it so skilfully that the film never feels predictable. Filled with pathos, there are some incredible moments that really tug at the heartstrings, and like all good kids’ films, there are some great lessons to be learned. I particularly liked the following non-traditional elements: that the main human gamer we see is a girl, not a boy, that the kick arse space marine (Jane Lynch) is a woman, and that the second billed character, Venellope (Sarah Silverman), is effectively a child with a disability. None of these things felt forced, but I was ecstatic to see that the film didn’t fall for any predictable clichés in that regard. The voice performances are all wonderful, with a particularly unrecognisable turn from Alan Tudyk as King Candy.
I haven’t seen every single one of Disney’s animated features in the last ten years, but for me this was easily the best I’d seen since Lilo & Stitch.Rating: