UPDATE 11/8/12: Below, I’ve added a section labeled ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY where I have a few extra things to say about the film.
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT: Some of this review I included in my comments on Cartoon Brew, but I have added more additional thoughts.
So I saw Wreck-it Ralph this weekend. I’ve complained a lot about feature animation in the past, but I think now I’m just starting to get exhausted with the Disney formula. I remember how in Walt’s day with the films that came from that era, the storytelling felt like it had at least some modicum of diversity. Lady and the Tramp was different from Sleeping Beauty. Snow White, Peter Pan, Cinderalla…they are all somewhat unique in the structure of their stories. But this formula that just about all animated films have adopted now is is starting to grate on me. It seems like almost every animated feature now is the exact same story dressed up in different clothing. Wreck-it Ralph is no exception. Again, it’s another character trying to find themselves. The main character is an outcast in their society. The main character is teamed up with a child. There’s the big break up scene where the main character is abandoned by all his friends. The villain conveniently turns into a giant monster at the end. At what point is somebody going to break this structure already?
That’s not to say that Wreck-it Ralph doesn’t have its charm. There are some fun gags in this. But the plotting is just so schizophrenic and all over the place. I enjoyed a lot of the nostalgic video game gags. But once we find out most of the film takes place in the Sugar Rush game, the theme of the film reaches a split. At first the movie is all video game gags. Then when we get to Sugar Rush, it turns into all candy gags. The feeling of this being a world of video games seems to fade in the background when we find out most of the plot takes place in the Sugar Rush game. The side plots don’t really feel like they connect that well to the overall film. Things happen that remind us that their in a video game, but the concept fades into the background, unlike a film like Toy Story, where the theme of the film being about toys and the rules and logic of that world play out to construct the entire story. I didn’t get that same feeling with Ralph. From the trailers, I assumed Ralph was going to be hopping from different games on a kind of adventure. I already expected the kind of “finding yourself” story with his character who doesn’t want to be a video game villain anymore. But once Ralph meets the little girl Vanellope, his whole purpose and quest gets lost. The film it turns out not to be about Ralph at all. Ralph manages to help the Vanellope achieve her rightful status in the Sugar Rush game. But at the end of the movie Ralph never really gets what he wants. He just goes back to doing his job. Okay, I get that all the characters in his game accept him now, but he wanted to raise his status in life and be more than what he was.
See, here’s the problem. Ralph’s problem is like anyone in real life who may have gotten bored with their job and decided they want to do something else with their life. But when the person can’t find what they’re looking for, in their mind what other choice is there but for them to go back to their old job? The one thing that might have changed is that Ralph’s co workers accept him now for who he is, but he still goes back to his old job playing the villain when he really wanted to be something else. I’m not surprised the story was constructed for him to learn a lesson, but I don’t think having empathy for someone else was really his problem. If it was, he wouldn’t be at a villains support group where he could already feel empathy for all the other villains there. Ralph is essentially put back in his place at the end of the movie, which I don’t think is fair to him. It’s not like he asked to be a video game villain. And also, his video game is 30 years old. It’s passed its prime. Why should Ralph be asked to go back a job in a game that’s going to die off anyway? The only people who will still play it are going to be those who are nostalgic for the game. So if Ralph’s been doing the same job for 30 years, a job that’s outdated and no longer relevant, and he decides he wants to move on, why does he deserve that chance? He was right to leave in the first place. All he’s really doing in keeping his job is keeping nostalgia alive for other people. You could make a comparison to a real life game character like Donkey Kong, a character that was created to be a villain, but in later versions of the game he became a hero, giving him his own series of games. Why couldn’t the same have happened for Ralph? Once Ralph meets Vanellope, he gets completely sidetracked and loses his way. You can tell especially when the film goes from being about video game to being about candy gags, it’s like the whole intent of the film gets lost.
The film is also a mixed bag with a lack of a main threat. Here, the bugs monsters from Hero’s Duty are introduced as threat that could destroy the entire video game world, but they play absolutely no part in the film until the very end, where it just becomes a contrived way of turning King Candy into a giant spider monster thing to create a threat. But the video-game world getting destroyed concept gets lost. There’s also the “Judge Doom” twist where Candy winds up being the rogue video game character with a vendetta. But it doesn’t work here. It worked in Roger Rabbit because the “toon that killed his brother” is personal…it’s tied to Eddie Valient. The reveal at the end is his worst nightmare come true and he has to face the very thing he’s feared for the last 10 years of his life. The rogue video game character…we have no emotional connection to him as a villain. I guess he’s supposed to be “like Ralph” in that he’s furious about his game being replaced. But Ralph has no personal connection to him. The rogue game character sort of keeps the King Candy persona after the reveal, but since the King Candy persona is fake, who is this guy? Why should we be afraid of the guy?
Another thing I noticed, and I found this to be a glaringly obvious plot hole. If Penelope is the star of the Sugar Rush Game, and King Candy made her a glitch so she would be dethroned…um…wouldn’t the kids in the arcade notice right away the star of the game wasn’t there? Some kid/video game fan would have pointed it out. I think almost immediately the arcade owner would consider the machine was defective and sent the game back to have a new one replaced. I don’t think I’m reaching that far in pointing this out.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Just a few other things I wanted to clarify about my opinion. It’s not the message of the film I’m really concerned about with this film, it’s how the metaphor for a video game character’s life that gets confused. Some people have tried pointing out for me that it was the moral lesson Ralph needed to learn that was more important for him. I can concede to the idea that maybe Ralph needed a little push so that he could see in himself that he isn’t the role that he plays, that deep down he is a selfless person who wants to help others…and that he needed to learn that lesson. That’s cool, I can agree with that.
But the plot of the film is about averting the threat of having your game unplugged, and when that happens, it means all the game characters in that particular game will be out of a job. Ralph works in a video game that’s 30 years old, which by today’s standards would be archaic. Occasionally, yeah, a little girl or boy might pop a quarter in and try it out, but other than that, the only people who will play will be those nostalgic for the game. It’s already not long before the plug will be pulled on Ralph’s game. This idea is addressed in the movie with the villain, who becomes angry and vengeful that his game became archaic, and he’s out for revenge because he’s been hurt by life. Ralph has the same problem as the villain, but at the end of the movie, that issue is never addressed. And it’s a serious issue for him! Ralph goes back to his old job, but he and his co workers are still in danger of winding up homeless like Q-bert. What are him and Felix and all the other characters in the game going to do about it? They’re either turning a blind eye to the problem, or they haven’t picked up on the fact that their job may not exist in the next year or two. Which is kinda like real life! And unless somehow they find a way to get an upgrade, like Donkey Kong, they’re screwed.
If anything, Wreck-it Ralph at times can be solid entertainment. But the story’s metaphor for life using video games gets completely lost, and while the film tries to deliver what it considers an important message, I don’t think it’s a good one. It’s seems like a story more fixated on holding onto the past as opposed to moving forward into the future.