Is Disney's love letter to arcades worthy of a high score or a game over?
Almost immediately, there's a weird dissonance in Wreck-it Ralph, Disney's love-letter to the 80s/90s age of arcades. From frame one, where the film begins at the arcade that is home to all the characters and games we're about to meet, hitting those gamer nostalgia buttons is clearly one of the film's top priorities. You're assailed by all the bloops and bleeps that helped to make the arcade such a special place in the hearts of children (including this one). There's some Galaga and Space Invaders in the corner, along with newer, modern racers and light gun first person shooters. Aside from the fact that this is an independently-owned arcade that seems constantly well-attended and in no danger of closure, this could be a scene from any childhood from the 1980s onward.
The problem, then, is the fact that Wreck-it Ralph, while clearly meant for the older gamer crowd, is written with much younger, less-savvy kids in mind. After all, what eight year old is going to recognize Neff from Altered Beast, who is weirdly prominent in all the film's advertising?
An awesome one, that's who.
Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the Donkey Kong-esque villain of Fix-It Felix Jr., where he wrecks an apartment building that was built after bulldozing his house to the ground. Multiple times a day, for thirty years, Ralph is bested by Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer), thrown into the mud, and sent to his home in the dump. Tired of being ignored for his years of hard work and yearning to be seen as something other than a bad guy, Ralph escapes his game and heads to Game Central Station, where all the arcade characters mix and mingle between games. Also, it's the horribly-unsafe power strip where literally every game in the arcade is plugged in. Seeking a medal to show that he can be a hero too, he jumps into Hero's Duty, a modern light fun/FPS featuring the tough-as-nails Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), and eventually finds his way to an anime-inspired kart racer, Sugar Rush, where he has to enlist the help of glItched character Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) to figure out just how to be happy with who he is.
Throughout the film, you can't go more than five seconds without a cameo or reference to some video game character or meme (Final Fantasy fans in particular should keep a close eye on the graffiti in Game Central Station), and as such, Wreck-It Ralph is glittering, awesome candy for gamers. In the span of thirty seconds, anything from Street Fighter to Tapper to the infamous LEEEROOOOY JEENKINSSSSS gets referenced in some way or another. Further than that, there's all kinds of neat little physical nods to various game conventions. The little citizens of Ralph's native Niceland, as they're little characters with limited animation in game, move with jerky, early arcade-esque movements. After all, they weren't programmed with that much animation, unlike Felix and Ralph! Small touches like that appear throughout the film, and they're all a lot of fun. Taken purely as a series of fan service moments for lifelong gamers, Wreck-It Ralph is more than worth the ticket price.
Unfortunately, the narrative and characters are pretty lacking for a film so clearly meant for older viewers. Ralph's internal dilemma is a nice message (how do you deal with being who you are if you don't like who you are?), and John C. Reilly is pitch-perfect as the grumpy bad guy with a secret heart of gold. Unfortunately, his is the only conflict in the story that really feels strong or interesting. The film doesn't even pick up any kind of central antagonist or external conflict until well into the film, and it's a fairly weak one at that. There's a vague threat that if Ralph doesn't make it back to his game, it'll be unplugged and taken away forever, leaving the citizens of the game homeless in Game Central Station, but this never really feels like more than an inconvenience or the standard, "look at what your reckless actions that we drove you to have wrought!" message for the hero.
Ultimately, Ralph plays things pretty safe. There's the standard rise, fall, and rise again character arc for Ralph. He gets brought together with others, pushes them away for selfish reasons, before becoming the hero for realsies. It's cute, and it's watchable, and it's occasionally very funny, but nothing every really reaches further than a better-than-average kid's movie. There we get back into that weird dissonance between who this movie is actually meant for. The whole premise of the film is built around the nostalgia for early videogames and arcades, and though it's an original story, most moments do quite a lot to reference past videogames. For that sort of target audience, the writing's just not up to snuff, but for younger kids, who won't get easily sixty percent of what's being referenced, it's more than good enough.
All you Dtoiders out there especially are going to be seeing Wreck-It Ralph regardless of reviews, just for all the vidja gamez, and I can definitely recommend that, but if you're looking for a higher-quality animated movie, Brave's out on Blu-ray in a couple weeks.
Also, sorry about the idiotic subtitle.