“What did you think of Wreck-it Ralph?” I’ve occasionally been asked.
Being a source of knowledge on the somewhat esoteric nature of classic video gaming, it only seems natural that someone might ask me that question. But the truth is that I had zero interest in watching Wreck-It Ralph during its theatrical run.
That was not just because of the extortionate cinema prices here in the UK, but also because of the general representation of video games in the mainstream media; something that far too often comes across as cringe-worthy and patronizing.
And I’m sure I don’t need to say anything about how video game adaptions have fared in Hollywood up until now…
Yes, I’ve seen enough documentaries on the subject to know better; the premise very quickly devolves into “video games are great!” hyperbole that by the end has offered you 90% CliffsNotes and 10% insight at best.
I don’t need such pandering wastes of time to validate my lifestyle choices and simply reflect them back at me, what use would that be?…
Wreck-It Ralph is the story of the eponymous character; a “bad guy” in the fictional arcade game Fix-It Felix. Tired of playing the villain and desperate to earn the respect of his alarmingly prejudice and elitist co-characters, Ralph sets out on a adventure to find a medal that will (for some reason) finally win him some much desired respect.
Essentially an analogue to Nintendo‘s classic Donkey Kong coin-op, the Fix-It Felix cabinet stands in, what I assume here, is a magical amusement parlour where video game characters come alive after all the patrons have gone home for the night.
If it already sounds derivative of other Disney CGI flicks like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. that’s because it is.
What plays out over Wreck-It Ralph and its inflated two hour run-time amounts to little more than a depressing, poorly realized morality tale about learning to accept your role in life no matter how shitty it is.
The first major problem with this film concerns its universe; something that makes decidedly little sense whether you’re a gaming enthusiast or not.
The film makes it abundantly clear early on that, as an arcade game character, having your cabinet disconnected (the plug pulled out) is akin to death and it’s a point that’s hammered in over and over again.
So are we to assume then that these machines are kept on indefinitely? What happens when the conduit, that connects all of the machines and therefore all of the game worlds together, gets unplugged? What if some careless kid trips over it? Everyone dies then, surely?
There are many, many other plot holes I could mention but this one is especially problematic because so much of the film’s intended “drama”, especially in the closing scenes, rests on the idea that the key characters could outright disappear from existence altogether.
I’ll touch more on this later but you’re probably already saying to yourself “It’s a kid film” right? Surely it’s not fair to criticize every plot hole in a film that’s primarily intended for kids?
Well let’s talk about that for a second, because yes; Wreck-it Ralph is clearly intended to be viewed by a younger audience. A younger audience that I really don’t see appreciating the dizzying number of aging cameos and references that this film fires off in the opening twenty minutes alone.
What kid enjoying animated Disney films today is likely to recognize Q-Bert? Or Kano? Even Neff; the “welcome to your doom” spouting boss from Sega’s venerable Altered Beast franchise shows up in his purple rhino form. Most adult gamers I know would be hard pressed to catch that one, I think.
Other cameos just don’t make a whole lot of sense, like Street Fighter‘s Zangief appearing in the support group scene (when did he become a bad guy?) or Sonic the Hedgehog, who has several brief glimpses despite being known for his home console games and not for any landmark arcade release. It may seem strange to hear from a former Sega advocate, but I really had Mario pegged for that appearance instead and his absence overall (aside from a throwaway verbal reference) lends a peculiar air to the rather deflated proceedings.
I suppose the references are mostly intended to appeal to older gamers; people who may actually have a chance at “getting it” so to speak. But even then the film has trouble referencing in a way that doesn’t feel outright jilted and awkward. It feels more like one big marketing angle than it does a legitimate setup for a movie.
In a scene that had some real potential to be good, Ralph sits drowning his sorrows in the (Root Beer) Tapper bar whilst the titular bartender listens to Ralph speak his troubled mind. Then a patron calls for another round and the scene transitions to several seconds of recreated footage from the actual Tapper arcade game where the bartender sends mugs of beer flying towards his thirsty patrons.
All this in an effort to make sure everyone got the reference.
We got it.
He’s the bartender from Tapper.
You did well movie, good job.
Getting back to the original point then, yes; Wreck-it Ralph is clearly a kid’s film, but one that has a real identity crisis.
The overall presentation of the animation and kid-friendly soundtrack is going to struggle to interest adults and the number of references likely won’t make sense to young children either. It feels like a strange contradiction of a film at so many points that it becomes really hard to enjoy whether you get the references or not.
Another massive problem with this film concerns the writing. Simply put, the script for Wreck-it Ralph is incredibly bad with plenty of bland characters and brain-dead humour that misses the mark on a consistent basis.
John C. Reilly (who voices Ralph) has so little to work with over the course of the film that Ralph never feels like someone you can really root for and often comes off as more of a detestable misery guts than the misunderstood gentle giant that he’s intended to be.
The only skill Ralph possesses is the ability to wreck things (naturally) with his angular fists and feet, but none of the so-called action scenes benefit from this characteristic. His powers are never explored in any interesting or clever ways; he’s just a stock big guy with very little else to offer aside from the odd rather mean-spirited remark.
If you watch the trailer to this film right now, you might notice how the editors have really struggled to find footage that might be considered funny and attractive to cinema goers. It’s because there really isn’t any!
The supporting cast is similarly weak with a collection of annoying or under-developed characters that fail to inject much life into the plodding story.
After a fairly crappy opening third, Ralph is transported to the Sugar Rush “game” for the remainder of the film and it’s here that things really start to get tedious.
This loathsome Mario Kart clone is an incredibly generic food themed world with many pink candy cane trees, jelly bean hills and bodies of water filled with Coca Cola.
Alongside some rather lamentable product placement, Ralph works to help a small “glitch” called Vanellope win a big kart race and depose the mad King Candy.
It’s during this lengthy period of the movie that Wreck-It Ralph shows its true colours, as the film all but abandons its video game premise in favour of a very generic fantasy adventure with the usual betrayals, break-ups and reunions that you would expect for a plot that has absolutely nothing new to offer whatsoever.
Although the film ditches its reliance on cameos and references at this point, it forgets about the relationship with video games almost entirely and fails to leverage the concept into anything that might be deemed entertaining.
The script writers suddenly veer into the territory of absurd farce and weigh down the script with as many food and sweet related puns as possible. It really doesn’t make any sense why at every point I kept saying to myself “what has that got to do with video games?”
The script gets so bad that it becomes extremely difficult to bear. Just look at this exchange that I copied from Wikiquote and you’ll see the caliber of writing I’m talking about:
Ralph: I can’t. I didn’t win it in my game, I won it in Hero’s Duty.
Vanellope: Hero’s Doody?
Ralph: [losing patience] It’s not that kind of duty!
Vanellope: [through laughter] I bet you really gotta watch where you step in a game called Hero’s Doody! Ha ha ha! What’d you win the medal for, wiping? [Ralph rolls his eyes] I hope you washed your hands after you handled that medal!
Ralph: Listen —
Vanellope: One more, one more – why did the hero flush the toilet? …Say “Why?”
Ralph: [unimpressed] Why.
Vanellope: Because it was his doody!
Ralph: How dare you insult Hero’s Duty, you little guttersnipe! I earned that medal! And you better get it back for me toute-suite, sister!
Vanellope: Well, unless you’ve got a go-kart hidden in the fat folds of your neck, I can’t help ya!
I just need a minute.
That was really bad.
Then appears King Candy- the film’s villain who takes on the guise of the Mad Hatter.
Just repeat this to yourself: this film, supposedly set in a video game universe, aiming to steep itself in recognizable video game history and characters, has a villain who is just a carbon copy of the Mad ******* Hatter.
I would love to know exactly what the script writers were smoking when they came up with that idea.
The Hatter is already an established Disney character which is odd enough but even then he’s only tangentially related to food, at least I guess? I just can’t get my brain to comprehend this decision at all.
I mean, why is he the Mad Hatter!? Can anyone explain this to me?
Of course later it’s revealed that King Hatter is just a disguise for the real villain called Turbo; a once jealous video game character that once corrupted a competing game and was subsequently disconnected.
But why is Turbo still alive then?
How did he cheat death to get here?
How exactly did he end up in Sugar Rush?
You get the idea.
This ties into what I was saying earlier about the film not even respecting its own established rules and as far as plot holes go, it’s pretty damn major. If only the characters weren’t so lifeless and unlikeable at every turn it may have been able to brush off some of these problems, but alas this is not the case.
When you get down to it, Wreck-It Ralph could easily have been a generic fantasy film set in a sweet shop than a video game. The opening twenty minutes, cameos and all, feel overly forced; a desperate attempt to inject some life into a premise that is all but limp when the credits begin to roll.
After having watched this film in full, I seriously cannot detect any passion for video games on the part of the creators at all. Honestly, I feel that more scenes illustrate their contempt for the medium more than anything else.
“When did video games become so violent!?” shrieks Ralph during his brief stint in the modern game world.
Yes, very succinct. And pretty rich coming from a guy called Wreck-It Ralph don’t you think?
Here’s a quick a news flash guys: video games have always been violent. They will always be violent. The game Ralph stars in features pixelated renditions of violence. What point are you trying to make here?
What’s next?… Positive points? Are there any?
Well no, not really.
Although I find myself at least liking elements of Jane Lynch’s character Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun. Having the modern archetypical grizzled hero be female was a refreshing change and having her overcome her “tragic backstory” could have been a nice, and not to mention very topical, side plot to support the rest of the film’s ailing narrative.
Sadly Calhoun’s character never deviates much from her established trope and by the end she is quickly subjected to that persistent Disney cliché where she is swept off her feet by the new man she just met and promptly marries him (how this works in the video game world I don’t know) in order to deliver us our regulation happy ending.
A genuine pity that, I’d say. Especially after Disney’s own Frozen has apparently got done stomping on that exact same cliché.
As a person who is knowledgeable on the subject that Disney has tried to tackle, I find this lack of effort remarkably unsatisfying. And still at the end of all this I’ll still hear the “It’s for kid” argument.
Maybe it is “just for kids” and maybe that’s okay for most people.
But when did mediocrity and humorless nonsense become a good product for your children?
If this isn’t the worst Disney film ever, it’s certainly one of their most dull and lifeless efforts in recent years and marks a spectacular departure of form despite what the rave reviews and Oscar nomination might suggest.
I won’t waste your time nor insult your intelligence by summing this flick up with a tired video game metaphor; perhaps suggesting it’s “game over” for Disney or how it “ran out of continues” or whatever.
I will conclude in more simple terms: Wreck-It Ralph is a bad film and Disney should have both known and delivered better than this.