Wreck-It Ralph (2012) lets us know what the video game characters do when you turn off the game. Most of them spend quiet evenings in their 8-bit homes, others rest for another day of jumping and fighting, but some, like Ralph, the villain of his game, go to meetings where other video game toughs discuss how they can be bad but still feel good about themselves.
Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is required by the coding of his game to attempt to destroy an apartment building until he is thwarted by Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer), the game’s titular hero. Everyone seems to understand that Ralph is just playing his part and that he’s not really destructive, yet the populace of the game still seems to prefer Felix, who they laud with medals and parties while leaving Ralph to live alone in the town dump. Therefore, Ralph leaves his game and meets up in a communal space where similarly villianized characters come and commiserate. This is an impressive room of virtual reprobates, one that includes Bowser from Super Mario Brothers and one of the ghosts from Pac-Man. No sign of Donkey Kong, however, which is just as well; Ralph looks enough like him, with his massive simian arms, wild hair and uncovered feet.
The sessions center on accepting one’s badness and knowing that a character’s code doesn’t define him, but Ralph wants no part of it. He’s sick of being the bad guy and wants to be a hero for once, and if he can’t be one in his own game, he’ll bust in on another and try that. This is the set-up for Wreck-It Ralph, which scores some sly points early by defining the inventive rules of its universe (characters can travel from game to game, but it’s a little like traveling internationally with a lot of fruit and wildlife, which is how a race of alien bugs from a futuristic mature game comes to threaten the safety of a bright racing game for kids) and populating the frame with stars from real video games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Q-Bert and ones the movie invents like the feisty Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a realistic soldier from a violent shooting game and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a cartoonish girl from a candy-inspired world.
Were I a horrible, soulless Hollywood suit, I would say that the movie is Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) meets The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) with a little Toy Story (1996) thrown in, but Wreck-It Ralph never reaches the fun nor invention of any of those movies. They might be cut from the same cloth, but Roger, which gets its cameos from Bugs and Mickey, and Toy Story, which had surprise appearances from Mr. Potato Head and an Etch-A-Sketch, seemed to trade in nostalgia and the stuff of children’s fantasies, whereas Wreck-It Ralph feels made up of product placement. This is unfair to a movie that is energetic and often funny (besides, what are Mr. Potato Head and Etch-A-Sketch if not products?), but I’m afraid the movie has backed the wrong horse. Children’s imaginations drift to what their favorite cartoons and toys get up to when they aren’t watching or playing with them, but video games resist imagination because they so convincingly let the player place themselves within the experience. Therefore, Super Mario is only interesting when I’m controlling him. I don’t care what he’s up to when I’m at work.
I may not be the movie’s target audience (Wreck-It Ralph generates some big laughs with its cavalcade of video game celebrities, many of whom were unknown to me), but the execution of the flawed concept is at such a level that it’s hard to resist enjoying it. Reilly is a wonderful sad sack dope, and Silverman’s don’t-know-whether-to-strangle
The plot invents the rules as it goes along, and it doesn’t oscillate between its two story threads very well, but it makes for an inoffensive experience. It looks great, especially the bright candy universe (although the dark mature game gets the biggest laugh when the intruding Ralph, whose game is now quaint and ancient compared to the sci-fi nightmare he finds himself in, bemoans the violent trajectory of modern video games) and the voice acting is top-notch. Unfortunately, it doesn’t add up to anything much more than an immediate and temporary time. Ironically, it works on us the way real video games do: It’s very enjoyable when it’s on, but when it’s not, it shifts easily to the back of our minds.