Wreck-It Ralph Review

Allow me for a moment dear reader, to remind you of The Phantom Menace. Remember the story of a plucky young kid living on the fringes of society, taken on by an unlikely mentor and revealing an innate ability to race machines constructed by his own hands at unimaginable speeds?

Despite the unfavourable comments regarding Jake Lloyd’s performance as the young Anakin Skywalker, there is something that makes you want to root for this boy, something that makes you want to believe in him despite all his obvious faults and what we know of his fate in later life.

Save for the use of a famous sound effect – a possible nod to the recent acquisition of the franchise by Disney – there is nothing of note to suggest an influence or parallel with Star Wars here. Yet in plucky heroine, Vanellope von Schweetz (voiced by Sarah Silverman), there is indeed a parallel in terms of both her skill as a racer and her presence as an underdog within the vast game world of Sugar Rush.

Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph is a loving homage to both the past and present of the computer game industry. Rich with nostalgia and in-jokes, the film depicts the plight of former 8-bit villain, the eponymous Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), as he searches to change his fate and prove that he is much more than his job description implies.

Based upon the premise that all roles within arcade games are jobs, outside of which the characters live distinct and different lives, the film explores Ralph’s frustration with his place in life and charts his journey as he sets out on an odyssey to gain a golden medal and return triumphant to his own game not as the villain but at last as a hero.

Of course, all is not easy for Ralph and through the challenges that arise following his resolution to prove the residents of his own game wrong, he learns a couple of syrupy life lessons the like of which one has come to associate with Disney’s post-Walt output.

This isn’t a bad thing, not by a long shot.

The usual affirmations of ‘it’s okay to be different‘ and ‘be yourself‘ are subverted slightly in the roles of Ralph and the wonderful Vanellope, in that neither character’s acceptance of who they are glosses over their bad points. The message of ‘being yourself‘ is not a white wash of negative qualities but an acceptance of them.

Like Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek, Vanellope and Ralph learn to use their negative qualities for positive results.

Divided up into three main games worlds – Fix-It Felix Jr., Hero’s Duty and Sugar Rush – the film presents contrast and homage aplenty. With Fix-It Felix Jr. being rooted in the dynamic of 8-bit gaming, sharing a similar mechanic to Donkey Kong and much of the look popularised by the Nintendo Entertainment System, whereas Hero’s Duty is a first person shooter similar in design to Konami’s Terra Burst but sharing more than a little in common with the gameplay of rail shooters like House of the Dead and Time Crisis.

And then there is Sugar Rush, a world constructed of sweets and chocolate, its denizens fashioned presumably by some Chupa Chup headed Prometheus from syrup and sugar cane, each one echoing the designs of the Candy Kingdom from Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time as well as a multitude of characters of the Super Deformed/chibi caricature style. Yet the gameplay exhibited within Sugar Rush, the raison d’être for the world, is racing and it is this that provides a remarkable amount of reasoning within the story.

It is a surprisingly deep film, one strong in structure and one capable of appealing to both adults and children. In regards to the former however, as an indication of how times have changed, where once such a film may have featured a busty female villain to appease an older male audience and entice them to bring their children to the cinema, now there is… Q*bert, and whilst this appeal to nostalgia may at first seem contrived, the film is a far more appealing one for it.

This one, ladies and gentlemen, goes out to all the men and women in the audience who owned Intellivisions when they were younger. 

Within the colloquial dialect used within the film – a form of language peppered with familiar terms used in unusual ways, something previously applied by Disney to a computer game setting in the film Tron – Vanellope is a glitch and Ralph’s actions constitute an act of ‘going Turbo‘. The latter is vital to the film’s plot, a testament to the complexity of the worlds presented as part of the film’s internal structure. 

It is the combination of this use of language in relation to the visuals that makes the film so distinct and the characters so human. Amidst all the sugar and super there is surprising depth and the kind of grand themes that you might not have realised you have been missing for a very long time.

Whilst not of the same genre, there is something of the late, great audience friendly adventure film of the 1980s and early 1990s present in the make up of Wreck-It Ralph. Perhaps it is through association with the culture surrounding arcade machines of a similar era but the emotional notes hit during the story are similar to those in Scrooged or Ghostbusters.

The context makes it very easy to imagine a Space Paranoids or Starfighter machine being present in Litwak’s Family Fun Center & Arcade. Likewise, it is easy to conceive of a bored John Connor popping quarters into the Fix-It Felix Jr. machine; there are a whole host of possible connexions that could be made with the overarching pop culture of the time simply based on structure and feeling alone.

This balance between homage and invention ensures that Wreck-It Ralph is never once tiring or trite but instead is charged with the sort of energy that keeps the film vivid in the mind, even long after leaving the cinema.

Given this, it’s hard to imagine how, despite the weighty nostalgia, Wreck-It Ralph could be anything less than a hit with younger audiences. It is both colourful and charming, its design as distinct as it is familiar.

However, there is of course one other very significant reason why I must recommend this film. Following on from a previous flirtation with the famed Yasutaka Nakata produced electropop group, Perfume, Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph features the mainstream American debut of a song by [sic] “a live act never seen before”.

In keeping with the sugary optimism of Sugar Rush, the game world’s theme tune is provided by AKB48. Suffice to say it was a genuine joy for this fan of the group to hear the song played so very loudly within the walls of an English cinema – just as it was also gratifying to see so many people within the audience responding to it as part of the film’s charm.

It is difficult for me to feel any ill will to a film when I can hear Takahashi Minami‘s loud and distinctive voice summoning the audience to “jump into your racing car“.

Featuring a design rich with references to both real world and the computer game industry – all whilst still refraining from being as excessive as games who have themselves dipped into such sugary waters – the Chupa Chup sponsored Zool on the Amiga being one such example – Wreck-It Ralph is that rarest of things; a commentary upon one industry by its closest relative with a genuinely heartfelt story at the centre of it all.

Highly recommended.

Wreck-It Ralph opens in cinemas in the UK on 8th February, 2013.

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