I was part of the NES generation but I played a lot of Arcade games as a kid. But I am not this movie’s target demographic.

Wreck-It Ralph is a sweet-natured film that borrows heavily from the Toy Story playbook. As such, it’ll no doubt be celebrated as a genuine kids’ movie with a ton of heart. It is those things. However, I think there was also an expectation that this would be a movie for gamers. It isn’t quite that. I mean, this is going to have different mileage for different people, but it seems to me that Wreck-It Ralph dabbles a bit with gamer nostalgia but doesn’t need to have anything to do with videogames for its story and themes to be essentially the same. This makes the videogame clothing it wears mostly surface-level, the source of a few great gags and some plot details, but not much else.

Is this a bad thing? Nah. Wreck-It Ralph isn’t Reboot and it isn’t really interested in trying to be. I can’t exactly fault the movie for that, because it works anyway precisely because it doesn’t try to get anywhere with phenomenological commentary on gaming. It keeps it skin deep so that its themes of selfishness vs. self-awareness can be expressed in refreshing way. But along the way, there are some really strange things going on. Not only does this movie peddle sugar to kids like it’s 1969, but it also includes a twisted representation of class warfare.Captain N this isn’t. The closest thing we get to a protagonist from a real game is Q-Bert.

That said, the one exception is where old timey arcade characters like Ralph (John C. Reilly) take a few light jabs at modern gaming conventions. The game “Hero’s Duty” and Ralph’s reaction to it reflect an understandable bias of mild disapproval for how games have become “so violent”. From the FPS gameplay to the anonymous, swarming enemies, “Hero’s Duty” feels like a fairly pointed criticism of contemporary video games. That Wreck-It Ralph deals with the obsolescence of old gaming machines much the same way as Toy Story deals with old toys is the source of this bias.

The funny thing is, I’m not sure it does them any favors with the people my age who are likely going to see this movie. We’re the middle children of videogame history and we tend to be less preferential toward either contemporary games (which we buy like motherfuckers) and classics (there’s a “classic game” revival movement, after all) we still indulge. I mean, if you’re in your mid or late 30’s then this nostalgia-fueled bias might mean something to you. I think even those people, most of them men granted, would still prefer Hero’s Duty  any day.

The support group sequence is pretty good, though heavily used in the trailers.

Ralph is a bad guy among many game bad guys who aren’t really bad guys. Unlike the others who seem to be more or less okay with their role in the arcade’s stratified, classist world (seriously), Ralph wants something more. He wants to be appreciated for his work, to have friends and inclusion. Unfortunately, because the people in his game are a bunch of dicks, he has to sleep alone in garbage and suffer abuse on top of being stuck in his role. There’s a bunch of sanctions against game characters migrating and trying to quit means the game will be shut down and everybody inside is fucked. The whole world seems set up so that Ralph has to continue being the bad guy and taking shit for it.

Now see, this is interesting stuff. It’s a (probably) unintentional commentary on the rich-poor divide in Western society. Felix Fix-It Jr. (Jack McBrayer) is the good guy to Ralph’s bad. Felix gets to be included but he’s basically a nice guy and treats Ralph with a sort of patronizing concern. Felix is a have. He gets the pent-house on top of the apartment building Ralph wrecks in-game. He also gets the parties, the friends, etc. Ralph is envious and disenfranchised, cuz he’s a have-not. I could easily understand if he went totally sociopathically rogue but aside from a bit of a temper and a bout of stubborn self-interest that drives a lot of the conflict in the movie, he’s a pretty decent Hulk-analogue.

See, Ralph is not unsympathetic to the plight of the downtrodden videogame creature.

One of Felix’s associates in particular delights in antagonizing Ralph. His name is Gene but I like to call him L’il Romney. Gene’s a twerp and he taunts Ralph that he can’t fit in unless he wins a medal somehow. Medals function in this pocket-verse as the status reward for the victors of the game. Surely the player gets something, but it’s their in-game avatars who get to wear the medals and get the bitches. Ralph wants his slice of the Arcade Dream so he heads off into Gaming Central to find a way he can get one.

“Going turbo” is an expression used throughout the movie to refer to a game character who tried to jump game to game, infecting another one and getting it shut down. The fear is that Ralph has gone turbo and when he fails to appear for the next round of his game, it’s stickered and put on 24 notice. If Ralph doesn’t come back in that time, the game will be condemned and all its characters forced to squat in Central. To stop this from happening, Felix tracks Ralph to Hero’s Duty, a game where Ralph hears he has a shot at getting a medal.

Gene. Fuck him.

It’s not in service of the proletariat that Ralph goes in search of a medal. Rather, he is acting completely in his own interest. He doesn’t know that his actions are putting his game in jeopardy. Of course, it is unlikely that he’d be anything but scolded if he saved the day by returning. In Hero’s Duty, Ralph comes face to face with the dark underbelly of the arcade’s status-reward system. Hero’s Duty is a violent, dark game. Its characters are responsible for supporting the User in a grinding advance toward a Beacon which will stop the cybugs from eating everything (or whatever). The leader of the space marines of this game is Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a tough bitch with the kind of exaggerated sexy lady body familiar to anyone who’s played a game or seen a superhero comic. Though her physique is odd with an actress like Lynch attached, Calhoun is a memorable character with whom Lynch has a lot of fun.

She’s also got her harsh way of relating that cooperation, not going it alone, is valuable. In her game, cooperation with the other characters and with the User are important. Ralph is still consumed by his vain quest for the acceptance of others. The lesson here, especially for younger audience members, is that learning to accept yourself is more important than what others think of you. If Wreck-It Ralph has a central theme, it’s that. But it has a weird fucking way of showing it during the first half of the movie.

The fantastical arcade game settings allow for some nice visuals.

Ralph does get the medal but before he can go back to his game in triumph, sticking it to the pint-size bourgeoisie that have neglected him, he accidentally gets himself launched into another game. This new game is a racing game as envisioned by insane five year olds strung out on sugar.  Sugar Rush, it’s called, and it insidiously suggests all that is cute and great about candy to your own inner (or outer, in my case) child. The effect is weirdly pernicious, I think. I mean, I get that kids like candy but you’d think that Disney would be a little more responsible with showing us a glittery, candy world of wonder. The first thing your children will want after seeing Sugar Rush is fucking candy. By the car load, obviously.

Having brought a cybug along with him, Ralph winds up stranded with his medal stolen by Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman). Vanellope is a great little character and her dynamic with Ralph is what makes the movie heart-warming even though it’s also fucking bonkers. Because she’s a glitch, Vanellope is forbidden to compete in the big Sugar Rush qualifying races that determine which of the game’s racers go on the daily roster. The seemingly benevolent King Candy (Alan Tudyk) says he just wants to protect her from herself, but the truth is far more sinister. To buy their way into the races, the racers (who have names like Candlehead and Taffyta) must use a gold coin won from prior races. Vanellope has no such coin, having never been allowed to race, so she steals Ralph’s medal and uses it to buy her way in.

Tudyk indulges basically Johnny Depp levels of mesmerizing oddness in his performance.

Vanellope is basically another version of Ralph. Due to her status as a glitch, she can never leave her game but can also never take part in it. Like Ralph, she is trapped by the caste system of the arcade, and like Ralph she is always looking for a way out. She’s also a decent person, too, so her plight is just as sympathetic to us even as we watch she and Ralph try to double-cross each other over who gets to join the haves first. Eventually, they find a way to cooperate and strike up a touching friendship. They perfectly compliment each other, after all, even in their flaws.

Meanwhile, Felix and Calhoun join forces to find Ralph. It seems that Ralph’s vanity has threatened every game in the system. Nonsensically, the cybugs don’t function like other game characters but as a virus. If released into a game that has no beacon, the cybugs will multiply and corrupt, destroying other games. Starting with Sugar Rush, which Vanellope can’t leave.

That car is bad for kids.

Finally, Vanellope and Ralph realize individually that they need each other and each is able to accept themselves because they are accepted by each other. This gives them the strength to actually save each other and in doing so, save both Sugar Rush and Felix Fix-It Jr. Everything really comes together around the big climax of the movie. On a purely visual level, it’s a very pleasing sequence with Ralph’s big sacrificial punch and Vanellope’s mastery of her glitch powers giving them each superhero-level fuel for their great deeds.

Along the way, it is discovered that Turbo is really King Candy and he has actually programmed Sugar Rush to be his personal kingdom. Vanellope von Schweetz is the true royalty, making her another fucking Disney Princess of course, and the seemingly benevolent plan to keep the game running was really a plan to keep Turbo in power. The horrifying yet unresolved truth of this situation is that what Candy has done isn’t much different than what the original programmers, unseen as the humans in Cars, created the game to be. Turbo has corrupted whatever Sugar Rush was supposed to be, but its denizens are just as locked into their programming (evinced by Vanellope’s status as abritrary ruler) as they were under the King. Yes Vanellope is a better person than Turbo, but it’s still some creepy stuff going on there.

Almost as creepy as this love connection.

All the philosophical weirdness of this movie doesn’t actually amount to much of a criticism. I could do that, I guess, but I don’t think the movie really means to say many of the things it winds up saying. When Ralph goes back with Felix to their game world, the people finally give him the appreciation and credit he deserves. Meanwhile Vanellope gets to race and keep her glitch, which people wind up loving, back in Sugar Rush. This means that they’ve managed to change the status quo in spite of the ridiculous odds stacked against them. This seems to dissolve, however unsatisfactorily, the problems associated with the caste/class society within which they live. It’s a pat resolution, of course, but it’s a friggin’ kids movie so I need to lighten up maybe.

Besides, Ralph still going to the villain support group meetings suggest a sad undertone to all ending narrative. Yes, the outsiders have altered the status quo of of their respective worlds, but they are still locked into the rigid caste system of the arcade world they inhabit. On some level, Ralph knows he’s still a prisoner of his context. He’s learned to accept it, and it helps that he can watch Vanellope, his truest friend, do her thing each time the little twerp masters he serves toss him off a fucking building. In spite of his happier outlook at the end, he is still a tragic and cautionary figure for us and our children.

Beware, he seems to say in a smile that is more grimace, or be as I am.

Consider the symbolism of his game, the very act of his destroying the edifice of the exclusionary forces that oppress him… only to have it renewed by Felix, the ultimate oblivious have, for the very cabal that winds up throwing Ralph down from its walls. The system beats Ralph, on the level of his own game function and on the level of the arcade world and its classist rules, and he has no choice but to be happy with it or destroy it all. If only he had the imagination to smash down the whole system, to go Turbo with only moral purity in his heart unlike his forebear, then maybe he’d effect a real and lasting change.

Unfortunately, that’s not this story. This is the story of a potential hero flirting with freedom and co-opted by oppression. Turbo, though lost to insanity, might be the true paragon of Wreck-It Ralph.

Am I even serious with this review? I don’t even know. It hurts my head to think this much about a Disney movie. Whether it’s all a joke stretched far beyond sanity or not, I had some sort of weird fun writing it. The same sort of weird fun you might have, as I did, watching Wreck-It Ralph.

It’s basically the animated version of Brazil. That’s pretty amazing, really. What a year for animated movies 2012 has been. Fucking Disney.

Sour Bill would warn young Ralph of the folly of his quest, of the ultimate impossibility of overcoming the Arcade, but how can he from inside Ralph’s mouth?

Advertisements