Ever since Disney acquired Pixar in 2006, it’s seemed like the studios have been slowly switching places creatively, with the House of Mouse challenging us with daring flights of fancy and the, uh, Condominium of Hopping Desk Lamp coasting with perfunctory sequels and formulaic fairy tales. Compare the most recent Pixar offering, Brave (2012), to Rich Moore’s Wreck-It Ralph. The former proves gorgeous to look at but treads all too familiar ground, whereas the latter sparks our imagination at every turn and even challenges social conventions.
Its premise alone evokes the Pixar movies of yore, using familiar childhood iconography to create a wondrous universe of untold possibilities. In Wreck-It Ralph, the animated sprites that populate our favourite arcade games come alive every night to celebrate a day’s work at Tapper or gather for a Villains Anonymous meeting with Bowser and Zangief from Street Fighter II. The use of classic franchise characters will have long-time video game geeks pointing left and right at the screen, trying to catch every reference as if they were wild Pokémons.
We get a few original characters too, including the titular Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), who’s grown tired of playing Donkey Kong to Fix-It Felix Jr’s (Jack McBrayer) Mario. His weariness has less to do with routine than disdain from his peers: “It’s hard to love your job when no one else seems to like you for doing it.” Like many bullied kids, our hero sets off on an ill-advised quest to prove himself, wreaking havoc on a space-themed first-person shooter and girly racing game.
As an aside, I desperately want to play Sugar Rush. The power-ups are sweet (pun intended), and the tracks feature delicious puns like the pit of Nestle Quick Sand and the tracking Devil Dogs. Also, the game sports adorable 3D graphics, as does most of Wreck-It Ralph. One has to admire the way the animators have negotiated the actors’ subtle physical traits with the broader aspects of their video game caricatures. Ralph looks both like John C. Reilly and an eighties arcade villain the same way that Calhoun from Hero’s Duty captures Jane Lynch’s chin as well as the clichés of her genre. My favourite visuals, though, consist of the few glimpses at the characters’ sixteen-bit versions, such as when they crash classic franchises during the end credits.
I know what you’re thinking: this reads an awful lot like a mix of Reboot and Toy Story (1995). First, I don’t see how that’s a bad thing. Second, the characters take some unexpected turns around the twenty minute mark. I like, for example, that Fix-It Felix turns out a nice guy who regards Ralph as a genuine member of his family. He’s like that innocently popular teen who hasn’t figured out his geeky best friend doesn’t just want to hang out after school. It’s not until the guy experiences the sting of rejection firsthand that he comes to understand his colleague. By the way, I love his infatuation with Calhoon. The woman’s gloriously over-the-top dialogue makes her difficult to resist indeed: “Armageddon and the apocalypse just had a baby, and it’s ugly!”
However, the brunt of Wreck-It Ralph focuses on the titular character’s relationship with Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a spirited game glitch whom King Candy (Alan Tudyk) refuses to let into the Sugar Rush races. They bond over their shared isolation, leading to two particularly powerful beats: Ralph’s realisation that he has to break Vanellope’s heart to protect her (how many family cartoons expose kids to this sort of dilemma?) and his climactic sacrifice. What makes the latter scene so moving is the hero reciting a throwaway motto from the first act, emblemising his fear and sudden need to believe in a grander purpose. Pretty deep stuff.
Bullying has got a lot of screen time of late, but few films address the topic with as much tact and intelligence as Wreck-It Ralph, which never labels the phenomenon, allowing children to absorb its message without feeling lectured. Make no mistake though. Ralph and Venellope are being bullied, pure and simple, and the screenplay by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee never shies away from the idea that this sort of harassment trickles down from those who claim to protect us, valuing newfound friendships in wider circles over the acceptance of mean-spirited brethren. You’d be hard-pressed to find such valuable insight in movies like Bully (2012) or, sadly, Pixar’s Cars 2 (2011).