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Analyzing Video Game Movies: Wreck It Ralph

FeaturesAllen
Analyzing Video Game Movies: Wreck It Ralph

What Pixar did for Hasbro and Mattel, Disney has done for Namco and Nintendo. Wreck It Ralph is the latest computer animated film by the Walt Disney Animation Studio and had the best opening weekend the company has seen in years. Drawing upon nearly thirty years of nostalgia, the movie takes viewers inside the world of video games without the discomfort that comes with being forcefully digitized by a half crazed computer program. The film tells the story of Ralph (John C. Reilly), the Donkey Kong-esque villain from Fix-It Felix, Jr., a “classic” arcade game reminiscent of Rampage. When the thirtieth anniversary of the game comes up, Ralph finds himself growing tired of always being the villain. After crashing an anniversary party he wasn’t invited to, Ralph makes a pledge that he will become a hero by earning a medal from the game Hero’s Duty. To do this, he “game jumps” into Game Central Station (the power strip from which all the games in the arcade are plugged into) where he crosses paths with a slew of recognizable video game characters including Sonic the Hedgehog, Chun-Li, the ostrich riding warriors from Joust, a homeless Q*Bert and even the paddles from Pong.

Wreck It Ralph is an enjoyable video game movie that benefits from not being based on a pre-existing franchise allowing the core concept of the film, the love of video games, to shine. Seasoned gamers will find themselves pointing out characters, calling them out excitedly much to the chagrin of friends, family and significant others. In the opening scene, Ralph attends a “Bad-Anon” support group attended by the likes of Dr. Robotnik, Bowser, Zangief, a dual axe wielding zombie from House of the Dead, and a Kano look-alike. In Game Central Station, entryways for games like Burger Time and Street Fighter II can be seen. Later on, one of the movie’s characters bypasses a door using the Konami Code. One of the film’s major set pieces, a kart race, contains all sorts of familiar elements such as boost platforms and power ups. The race was modeled after kart racing games so well that I could almost feel the controller in my hands. There are also a million little details and Easter Eggs to hunt down, making the DVD/Blu-Ray edition of the film a day one purchase. One of my favorite throwaway gags involved Ralph bumping into Sonic, causing him to spill his rings (complete with that jingling sound effect).

Despite all the winks and nods, the movie never feels like its blatantly pandering to its target demographic. Ralph’s journey to break free of his villainous stigma is filled with an equal dose of humor and heart more so when he finds himself in Sugar Rush, a video game world made entirely of sweets. This is where our anti-hero meets Venellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a glitch character who is unable to leave her own game despite the bullying she receives from other racers and King Candy (voiced by an indistinguishable Alan Tudyk). After a rocky introduction, the pair develop a friendship that is threatened by a harsh truth: if Venelope enters the race the player will see how glitchy she is, resulting in the game getting unplugged. Since glitches can’t leave their game, Venelope will die as a result. If you’re into romance, look no further than the hilarious pairing of Felix and Sgt. Tamora Jean Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the lead heroine from Hero’s Duty who was programmed with “the most tragic backstory ever.”

Wreck It Ralph is one of the more visually dazzling Disney films to come out recently (apart from Tangled) and each game world is built with its era and play style in mind. Fix-It Felix, Jr. is simple and generic and the residents move very much like 8-bit sprites. Hero’s Duty, a futuristic first person shooter, resembles the dark dystopian worlds seen in games like Halo and Gears of War. Sugar Rush is a full-on visual assault complete with expansive fields of red vines, candy cane trees, ribbon candy and the tall, chocolatey spire of Diet Cola mountain. The racing karts themselves look good enough to eat being made from peanut butter cups, hard candy, chocolate and cherry pie.

Wreck It Ralph isn’t just a good video game movie, it’s a good movie all around. The spectacle is enjoyable enough to keep children entertained while adults will appreciate callbacks to familiar digital heros. Although it’s not based on any one video game like the other films in this series, it is no less important for it. This is one of those rare instances where video games are treated with the sort of respect gamers have been looking for and not the butt of a ridiculous celluloid joke.

Teen Services Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.