Once a week for the past six years – a streak that could not be interrupted even by Superstorm Sandy – the New York Movie Klub has gathered its 20 or so members to share a film with each other. Cinephile City’s Mark Young is a member of the Klub, and every Monday he will share the previous week’s movie here.
Wreck-It Ralph isn’t a Pixar movie — instead, it was created by the same Walt Disney Animation people who made Frozen and Tangled — but it might as well be. For one thing, Pixar head honcho John Lasseter is an executive producer, and Lasseter is famously hands-on with the movies he produces. More important, Wreck-It Ralph is evidence of the huge influence that Pixar has had over animated features: everything that every Pixar film has ever done right contributes to this film’s immense success.
The film posits a world where video game characters are alive, they know what video games are and how the games work, and thus their most important job is to let the gamer have the game they expect. But Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), the Donkey Kong-ish villain of a popular ’80s game called “Fix-It Felix,” chafes under the lonely and under-appreciated life of a video game bad guy, while the titular Felix (Jack McBrayer of 30 Rock) gets all the glory. So Ralph heads off into the larger arcade world, trying to find a place where he can be the good guy, throwing his own game and many others into chaos.
At the time of its release, the film pitched itself as a sort of Toy Story or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? for video games, with multitudes from characters from various companies showing up together in the same scenes. That is true, to a degree. Ralph receives bad-guy group therapy from a Pac-Man ghost, alongside M. Bison and Zangief from Street Fighter II and Mario’s enemy King Koopa; later, Q*Bert, Pac-Man himself, and some other heroes appear (Nintendo, famously gun-shy about movies after the financial failure of Super Mario Bros., would not allow the use of Mario himself). However, those cameos are of little importance compared to the main story, in which Ralph tries to help a side character from a racing game (Sarah Silverman) while being pursued by the take-no-prisoners sergeant (Jane Lynch) of a first-person-shooter game he inadvertently wrecked.
The most important aspect of a Pixar film is its visual style. Every Pixar film is totally aware of the location of the camera, despite the fact that said camera does not, strictly speaking, exist, and shots are constructed as though a live-action film were being made instead of an animated one. It’s the same with Wreck-It Ralph, which has a superb understanding of when it should “look like a video game” and when it shouldn’t. The internal logic of each game is expressed visually, which is far better than the live-action Pixels could manage – Ralph’s neighbors in his own game move like 8-bit automatons, even while they’re displaying emotions with far more depth.
And there is far more depth of emotion here than in many animated films. Part of it comes from Reilly, whose voice work is simply peerless. Anyone who has seen Step Brothers or Walk Hard knows that Reilly has great comic timing, but his best moments in Wreck-It Ralph are all dramatic. It should seem obvious why Ralph can’t have what he wants — if there’s no bad guy, there’s no game, and if there’s no game, these characters’ lives are completely ruined — but he’s able to infuse Ralph’s desires with an understandable desperation all the same. Reilly’s glum opening monologue, which is little more than “I’m Ralph and this is my life” in terms of content, is more emotionally affecting than the entirety of the Shrek series.
A considerable amount of emotion also comes from the fact that this film, like many Pixar films, is taking on an unusually tough moral message. A lot of people watching this movie are likely to be stuck in jobs they don’t like or lives that feel lonely, just like Ralph, and it’s tougher to satisfy that feeling than you might think. It’s not always easy to tell the story of “Be happy with who you are” in such a way that it doesn’t sound like “Know your role and shut your mouth.” The movie gets there mainly through intelligent use of Sarah Silverman: her character’s desires are simple, and even though Ralph finds himself in a tough moral spot late in the movie, a real kid using Silverman’s “adorable little scamp” voice would be impossible to deny.
The only false moments in Wreck-It Ralph are those which feel like they came out of a non-Pixar movie. The use of a Rihanna song for one montage feels clumsy and on-the-nose, for example, and there is a love story which doesn’t seem to have any point. Much like the snowman character voiced by Josh Gad in Frozen (whose co-director Jennifer Lee is listed as a co-writer here), these seem like generically crowd-pleasing moves that the movie should be confident enough to do without.
Still, if Wreck-It Ralph isn’t quite as confident as WALL-E, it’s far more confident than the average animated movie in the last decade. As in the best Pixar pictures, there’s no obvious compulsion to have a joke that only adults will get here, and a joke aimed at sugar-addicted five-year-olds there. Many movies which follow that formula, such as Minions, barely feel like a movie, but Wreck-It Ralph feels like so much movie that it’s painful to leave its world.
Mark Young is the editor of Cinephile City.