Walt Disney Animation Studios
1 hour, 41 minutes
Who would have thought 20 years ago that you would go to see a Walt Disney animated film and think, “Hey, that wasn’t half bad.” No one knew then that Pixar, Blue Sky, and Dreamworks would go on to completely dominate animation and that Disney would be forced to buy its biggest competitor in order to compete.
Of course, buying competing studios is a speciality of the Mouse House, and with all that ready cash lying around, I don’t think we need feel too sorry for Disney and their long animation dry spell. 2008 saw “Bolt,” a very good movie, surprisingly, and one very influenced by the recent absorbing of Pixar, and then 2010 gave us “Tangled,” also good, also Pixar-y. There’s also been stumbles in there, too, but this week’s “Wreck-It Ralph” seems to mark a biennial pattern of entertaining, watchable kiddie-flicks coming out of the studio.
None of these are game-changers, or particularly deep or insightful, but they are several steps above the warmed-over trash the studio had been putting out for the last 10 years or so, up to and including their last big push at regaining their old glory, “The Princess and the Frog.” Of the three previously mentioned quality flicks, I’d say “Ralph” is probably my least favorite, but that doesn’t take away from the brightly colored, nostalgic fun it offers up.
The titular “Ralph” is the main baddie in an old-school arcade game called “Fix-It Felix Jr.” about an angry giant who lives in a trash dump and wants nothing more than to smash a local apartment complex. Felix, wielding his magical hammer, must fix the damage done by Ralph until the angry denizens of the building finally get up the gumption to throw Ralph off the roof. It’s a fairly simple game, and Ralph and Felix have been at it for 30 years.
The thing is, when the lights go out in the arcade, not much changes for Ralph, actually a pretty sweet guy with an admittedly tricky temper. At quitting time, when the apartment residents and Felix knock off for drinks, Ralph either shambles up to his trash pile to sleep, or, on occasion, goes to a meeting of Bad-Anon, where other villains support each other through pithy affirmations and bad coffee.
Ralph, it turns out, doesn’t want to be a bad guy anymore. He wants love and affection and possibly some of the cake the people in his game always seem to be eating. At the end of a game, Felix, assuming his player has beaten the levels, is awarded a medal, and Ralph decides that if he can get his own medal, he would naturally become a hero and enjoy all the rights and privileges therein. It doesn’t occur to him to wonder what would happen to his game if it no longer had a villain, but it soon will.
After a chance encounter with a PTSD-suffering space soldier from the new first-person-shooter “Hero’s Duty,” Ralph discovers that there are medals to be had deep within the sci-fi wargame. But “Hero’s Duty” is nothing like “Fix-It Felix” and after a few minutes of screaming platoon leaders, giant machine guns, and terrifying space bugs, Ralph is done with the narrative. Breaking the conventions of the game, he leaves the gamer behind and heads straight for his medal, high atop a tangled spire at the center of the game’s blasted landscape. This naturally leads to an unfortunate escape in a spaceship and a confused escape that lands Ralph, ship, and stowaway bug in the Wonka-esque world of “Sugar Rush,” a racing game where everyone gets to participate but one Vanellope von Schweetz, a sassy little girl with a sob story to melt even the crustiest of exteriors. Vanellope’s a glitch, it seems, a computer mistake and, as such, has no rights.
If that weren’t enough, the space-bug that Ralph landed in Sugar Rush is multiplying, a swarm that could overrun all the games in the arcade. And if that weren’t enough, “Fix-It Felix Jr.” is going to be unplugged and hauled away. With no villain, and no hero, since Felix went off to search for Ralph, the game has been marked “out of order.”
On the surface, “Ralph” does everything right. The action and humor are very entertaining, and kept my 3- and 5-year-olds rapt with attention. John C. Reilly as Ralph is perfectly cast, as are Sarah Silverman as Vanellope and Jane Lynch as the tough-as-nails platoon leader with a heart of gold.
What keeps it from being of Pixar or Dreamworks quality is that there is nothing below the surface. It seems to want to teach us a moral, but it’s unclear what that is. Should we learn to be happy where we are, realizing we are part of a larger universe and that all our individual roles are important? Yes ... or should we strive to reach that unattainable goal, throwing caution to the wind, never becoming stagnant by society’s expectations? Sure ... or should we embrace our limitations, owning them and making them a part of who we are? Umm ... or should we ... yes. Yes, yes, yes. Yes to all of these points, actually, even the contradictory ones.
I had fun with “Ralph,” but I still don’t know what it was trying to tell me. I actually doubt the writers know. But, as I said, the little ones had fun and, except for a scary Mad-Hatter-esque spider toward the end, there was really nothing, as a parent, to give me pause. In this day and age that’s something. “Wreck-It Ralph” isn’t completely dent-free, but it runs just fine.
“Wreck-It Ralph” is rated PG for mild rude humor and scary scenes.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.