Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Cinema File #22: "Wreck It Ralph" Review

A Toy Story-esque take on the inner world of video games, AND a Who Framed Roger Rabbit-esque crossover of classic genre characters? Those are two esques I can definitely get behind.

Wreck It Ralph tells the story of a videogame villain who finally gets sick of his lot in life and his arbitrarily outcast status and decides to venture out into the interconnected world of an arcade to prove himself as a hero. Along the way he meets a young girl with a dream of winning her own game, despite being barred from even playing because of her glitchy nature, and they bond over their shared ostracism and eventually work together to combat a common foe. The story is deceptively simple, with a lot of very well put together twists and turns, and it all comes together in the end better than I expected, but not necessarily in the way that I expected. For one thing, I find that while I very much enjoyed the movie as a whole, the one aspect of the film that first attracted me to it, the pop culture crossovers, is actually the weakest part.

Watching all of these various videogame icons mingle about, my first nitpicky thought was that there were a lot of characters in this movie who aren't necessarily from arcade games, and fit in more with console gaming (Bowser, and more specifically Sonic the Hedgehog to name a few). Then I realized, the fact that this takes place in an arcade at all, an industry that barely even exists anymore anyway, is a bigger stretch than anything else. The references are charming such as they are, but ultimately pointless. None of them rise beyond the level of one-joke cameos, and the real action centers around original characters who are generally pastiches of well-known games (Donkey Kong/Rampage, Mario Kart, and Halo for the most part). Ignoring the irrelevant question of whether non-gamers will get on board, I wonder if just from the level of storytelling, this movie wouldn't have been better served by jettisoning the real-life gaming references altogether and making them all thinly veiled parodies. The only areas where it really worked were the two scenes in the trailer with the support group and Q-Bert, and because it isn't more crucial to the plot, it's a little distracting. It's a minor quibble, but for me, there isn't enough done with these properties to justify the undertaking of bringing them all together.

In a weird way, the fact that these various settings happen to be related to videogames, real or imagined, almost seems like it doesn't really matter. I know that's the gimmick of the film and a central plot point relies on the mechanics of arcade systems, but its easy to forget all that at several points in the movie and just live in this crazy fantasy world. I found myself laughing more at the candy jokes than the explicitly videogame related stuff, and there's actually more of the former than the later by the end. I would feel cheated by this if the rest of the movie weren't so damn good. Admittedly, it's always easy to get behind a character like Wreck It Ralph. He's instantly sympathetic, placed in a role he doesn't much like that pits everyone else against him, when all he wants to do is fit in. Vanillope, his young glitchy partner, is equally endearing, which surprised me, as its a type of character I rarely enjoy. A lesser movie would have maintained a level of spunky, fast talking, insufferably fake cuteness and rendered the character unbearable, but here, they don't milk it and allow her just enough edge and rebelliousness to be engaging without being insulting to my intelligence. Rounding out the cast is Fix It Felix and Calhoun, a perpetually optimistic retro game hero and a bad ass alien killing mercenary respectively, who provide the opposites attract romance, but again, it takes what I would normally find annoying and trite and does it in a way that's fun and surprisingly emotionally resonant.

The villain is a little bland at first, and the fact that Alan Tudyk is clearly doing a sort of Charles Nelson Reilly meets Ed Wynn impression just makes me sad that neither of those actors were alive to do the role, but by the end, the reveal tying his character to the greater mythology of the movie is more than satisfying. This is the case for a lot of this movie. Plot elements are introduced in such a way as to almost make you think they don't matter, only so that they can be brought together in the end so perfectly that by the end, nothing seems tangential. With all the references and meta humor, this movie would seem to invite a kind of random, kitchen sink style, but it resists that at every turn in favor of a much more rewarding cohesiveness. Something small, like the alien bugs taking on the characteristics of whatever they eat, something that at the time seemed like just a cool effect, comes back in the end in a way that I couldn't help but appreciate for its ingenuity, and there are at least a dozen little things like that. It's easy to miss just how well put together this movie is with all the bright colors and craziness on screen, but I'd say it rivals some of my top movies this year just on this score alone.

And beyond the structure coming together in such a novel way, the way the characters develop carries more depth than the typical Disney fare. Ralph's initial quest is simply to find a medal, the proverbial hollow victory of every gamer trying to reach a kill screen, and instead of focusing on this singularly as if it were important, it instead uses it to show how little Ralph understands about where his low sense of self-worth comes from. The idea that the win will make everything better is fraudulent from the start in both his case and Vanillope's, and the real story is about both of them learning this, and learning that what their society tells them is the right standard to live up to doesn't matter. They find in each other the kind of acceptance they began to seek through the arbitrary metric of beating the game, which itself is a very poignant meta-commentary on why we love videogames and often invest so much of ourselves into them, sometimes at the expense of real personal connections. Compared to Brave, the previous Disney CG feature I saw this year whose main theme was "I really don't like that my mom's a bear now," it's definitely a vast improvement.

I didn't see this in 3D, pursuant to my personal rule against doing so unless I absolutely have to, and I've heard it isn't that great, but in general, the visual style of this movie is gorgeous. It starts out in deliberately limited environments, the cramped 3D representations of 8 bit landscapes, the drab meeting place of the support group, and so on, and then bursts into a whole new palette as Ralph starts crossing over from game to game. I love the counterbalance between the dark sci fi atmosphere of Hero's Duty and the bright, sickeningly sweet Sugar Rush, and while I suspect it might have bogged down the narrative, part of me really wanted to see his adventures extend past those two worlds into other, different types of games. It's another area where the references to other games feels like a bit of a cheat, because this feels like the kind of movie that should have ended with an extended trek or chase scene through multiple famous videogame environments, or at least an extended sequence, similar to Valiant's traumatic trip through Toon Town in Roger Rabbit. It's a missed opportunity I think, but one that is more than made up for with what we're given.

I wholeheartedly recommend Wreck It Ralph to any fan of Disney, Pixar, or fantasy films in general. I don't think any hardcore gamers are gonna flip out over it, but then I don't think they look to Disney animated movies for validation of their interests anyway. Still, it's hard for me to imagine an audience that this wouldn't appeal to at least in some capacity. It's good clean family fun that doesn't need to dumb itself down or condescend to anyone. It's even got me almost beginning to question my long standing loathing of John C. Reilly.

Mind you, I said almost.

Also, there's a character in this movie named Tafita Muttonfudge. I didn't have anywhere to include that fact in the review proper, but I think that's just delightful.

For more reviews in The Cinema File, CLICK HERE
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