Friday, April 5, 2013

2012 Family Movie Reviews, Part II: Wreck-It Ralph

As anyone who has seen the ads will know, Wreck-It Ralph is essentially a video game version of Toy Story (1995). Just as Woody and Buzz have adventures while humans aren't looking, Wreck-It Ralph and the other video game characters follow secret lives when the arcade shuts down and their actions are no longer directed by the players or the games' programming. During this time, characters are able to visit other video games' worlds through a shared power strip appropriately called "Game Central Station". The power strip has also become a refuge for homeless characters whose games have malfunctioned or lost popularity and been unplugged. When the "Out of Order" sign appears on a screen, the game's residents prepare to make a run for the power strip to avoid being trapped in an unplugged game.

Like the toys in Toy Story, the video game characters have certain rules and restrictions that are essential to the plot. For example, characters can die and regenerate over and over again in their own game. However, as explained by Sonic the Hedgehog in a public service announcement, if you die in another game, you can't regenerate. Additionally, a glitching character can't leave his or her own game. While some of these rules seem a bit arbitrary, there's another that has a much more obvious rationale: characters from one video game aren't supposed to interfere with another game while a player is present. This act is called "going Turbo" and is named after the titular character of a racing game called Turbotime. As seen in a flashback, Turbotime was the most popular racing game in the arcade in what appears to be the early '80s. When a newer racing game was installed, Turbo became jealous and entered the new game to sabotage it. Turbo's absence from his own game and his actions in the new one convinced the arcade manager that both games were malfunctioning, which led to both being unplugged.

This brings us to the story of Wreck-It Ralph, the villain of a classic game called Fix-It Felix, Jr.. The game's premise is that Ralph had been some kind of squatter who was displaced when an apartment complex was built. As the vengeful Ralph tries to wreck the building, Fix-It Felix races to repair the damage with his golden hammer. At the end of each successful level, Felix is awarded a medal while the apartment residents toss Ralph off the roof and into a mud puddle. Once the arcade closes, however, a downcast Ralph attends "Bad-Anon" support meetings. In one of the funniest scenes in the movie, we find that most villains (including perpetual kidnapper of princesses, Bowser) aren't even remotely villainous and are simply forced to play their part game after game. Unfortunately, most video game characters don't understand the villains' essential role and don't appreciate them. At the end of each meeting the villains repeat their affirmation: "I'm bad and that's good, I will never be good and that's not bad, there's no one I'd rather be than me."

Ralph isn't satisfied with being himself, though, especially when he finds that he's not been invited to the game's 30th anniversary party. While Felix is relatively kind to Ralph, the apartment residents despise him and declare that he will never be allowed to join them until he earns a medal like Felix does. That night, Ralph wanders off, determined to get a medal. The residents become concerned when the arcade opens the next morning and there's no Ralph to wreck their apartment. The lack of the villain leads to the dreaded "Out of Order" sign on their game and Fix-It Felix's inhabitants realize that they may soon be homeless. Felix, the designated hero, decides to go out looking for his nominal arch-nemesis.

Meanwhile, Ralph has entered the new first-person shooter game, Heroe's Duty, disguised as one of Sergeant Tamora Calhoun's nameless grunts. This represents a significant risk since such characters are typically eaten by the game's cybernetic insects called "Cy-Bugs". (Unlike other villains, the Cy-Bugs are mindless and act more like viruses.) Ralph eventually gets a mostly unearned medal but an errant escape pod sends him and a stowaway Cy-Bug egg out of the game, through the terminal, and into a candy-themed racing game called Sugar Rush. His medal ends up in the hands of a Vanellope von Schweetz, a character within Sugar Rush who perpetually wants to race but has been disallowed by King Candy because she's a glitch. When Vanellope uses some subterfuge and Ralph's medal to enter the race, Ralph is forced to help her build a candy racer so she can win the race and get his medal back. In the meantime, Felix and Calhoun join forces to find Ralph and the missing egg. What our heroes don't know is that King Candy's motivation for preventing Vanellope from racing runs deeper than a simple prejudice against glitches. They also don't realize that the Cy-Bug egg has since hatched and that Cy-Bugs are rapidly reproducing underneath the surface of Sugar Rush.

One of the first things that almost every viewer of Wreck-It Ralph will notice are the ubiquitous video game references; everything from the first Atari games up to today's high resolution first-person shooters. For my wife and I, one of the funniest shows a character accessing a game's programming by entering UP, UP, DOWN, DOWN, LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT, RIGHT, B, A on a classic NES controller. This code was burned into the memory of nearly every member of our generation. (Is it even possible to beat Contra without the 30 life code?) However, the numerous jokes that were previewed in Wreck-It Ralph's advertising had actually concerned me at first; there are already too many movies that strive to pack as many pop-culture references as possible into their running time while completely losing sight of things like characters and plot. Fortunately, the video game-related gags in Wreck-It Ralph are merely the icing on the cake. The characters are endearing and the story is on par with many of Pixar's films.

The film also has some very clever original ideas. For example, characters in games with static screens, such as Fix-It Felix, Jr., see the human world through a giant window floating in the air. In a first-person shooter, on the other hand, the player is seen through a widescreen monitor mounted on a tracked robot holding a gun. The film also makes fun of the odd video game logic that humans simply accept; e.g., that Felix's golden hammer fixes things when he hits them with it. During one scene, after being struck numerous times in the face, Felix actually fixes it by... hitting it with his hammer. Given the rules of Felix's game, hitting himself with a hammer is the logical thing to do. However, it surprises Calhoun since her newer game doesn't depend on the backwards logic of so many 8-bit games.

It's a shame that, for all its cleverness and the quality of its characters and story, Wreck-It Ralph was made for a narrow demographic and is unlikely to become as timeless as its apparent inspiration. The Toy Story films make a lot of references to well known toys and games, but nearly all of these are still current and recognizable nearly twenty years after the release of the first film. Wreck-It Ralph, on the other hand, was made for adults who were raised on an Atari or the Nintendo Entertainment System and whose children are being raised on a Wii, X-Box 360, or PlayStation 3. While my parents would probably enjoy the story, they wouldn't understand the majority of the video game-related jokes. And I suspect that within 20 years, gags such as the classic cheat code being entered on an NES controller will go completely over most viewers' heads. I wouldn't be surprised if only Mario and Sonic, who are still going strong decades after they were introduced, will be recognized by my grandchildren.

My only real issue with the film is the lack of explanation for some of the restrictions on the video game characters. (This would probably bother only those who are nitpicky about details.) Obviously, the real reason why characters can't regenerate in another video game and glitches can't leave their own game is because it's necessary for the plot, which isn't a very satisfying answer. I would have much preferred some sort of in-universe explanation that each character is supposed to represent a discrete program that isn't fully supported by other games. While a game's programming can recreate its own characters, it can't do the same for visiting characters. Presumably glitching characters would require constant support from their own game to continue to exist, which would prevent them from leaving.

I suppose it could be said that these rules are no more arbitrary than those in Toy Story. With few exceptions, the toys consistently act like inanimate objects while humans are looking. Even toys that lack self-awarenes and have no reason to behave this way follow the rule; e.g., a brand new Buzz Lightyear. I may be more accepting of the toys' behavior since the concept of living toys is a lot more bizarre than the idea that they follow certain rules. But the premise of sentient computer programs is so common in science fiction (and has been seriously discussed as a a future possibility) that you expect the rules governing their universe to have a more logical explanation than "just because".

This issue aside, Wreck-It Ralph's intended audience will find it hilarious for its depiction of the lives of our favorite video game characters (or they could have been our favorites had Fix-It Felix, Jr. been a real game). Even better, Disney has managed to produce a good imitation of Pixar's films by making a movie that's funny without being hollow.

1 comment:

  1. Great Review...I loved the movie!!! And after reading your review I realized that most of the references must have gone over my head!!! I didn't really ever play Atari or nintendo games. I only had one friend with an Atari and we're talking first Atari with Pong and Space invaders, and then maybe a little pac man and frogger at the Taco Time!!! I am too old to get this movie I guess!!!



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