Back To The Future Of Gaming

Disney’s new CG-animated film, Wreck-it Ralph, is a paean to the first-generation of 64-bit arcade games that thirty years ago brought kids (and not a few adults) into video arcades, eager to plunk down a quarter to play the square-hopping  Q*bert or the voraciously hungry PacMan.  It’s also meditation on how we can rise above the circumstances we find ourselves in to fulfill our dreams.  It’s also fun.

Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) lives in a dump – literally.  For thirty years he’s been the huge, destructive villain of his arcade game, destroying an apartment building with his ginormous fists while the hero, Fix-it Felix (Jack McBrayer), repairs the damage with his magic hammer.  The game always ends with the apartment dwellers tossing Ralph off the roof into a mud puddle and then celebrating Felix for saving them.

Once the arcade closes for the night, all the denizens of the games can intermingle at Game Central Station (a power strip) or go into each other’s games.  Ralph attends a meeting of a Bad Guy’s support group with Zangief the Russian wrestler and M. Bison from Street Fighter II, Bowser from Super Mario Bros., and one of PacMan’s ghosts, among others.  As Zangief says, “Just because you Bad Guy, it doesn’t make you bad guy.”

But Ralph doesn’t want to be the bad guy anymore.  He decides to slip into another game the next day to become a hero by winning a gold medal, even though he’s been warned that if you die in another game, you’re really dead – there’s no reset.  He thinks the new game will be similar to his own, but instead he finds himself in a modern first-person shooter, part of a team of space commandoes led by a female warrior named Calhoun (Jane Lynch) that’s tasked with killing alien bugs.  “When did video games become so violent?” asks Ralph as he runs for cover.

Ralph escapes into a candy-themed racing game called Sugar Rush where he meets a young, wannabe racer named Vanellope (Sarah Silverman).  Ralph realizes he has much in common with Vanellope, who’s viewed by the other residents of Sugar Rush as a programming glitch.  He decides to help her get into the game’s race, though it means defying King Candy (Alan Tudyk).

The film was directed by Rich Moore, who’d previously worked on Futurama  and The Simpsons.  He collaborated on the movie’s story with Phil Johnston, who wrote the comedy Cedar Rapids, and Jim Reardon, who worked on Animaniacs and also did the screenplay for WALL-E.  (The screenplay was then done by Johnston and Jennifer Lee.)  They give the movie an irreverent twist, but it’s layered over with a deep warmth for the characters.

The vocal work by all involved is first-rate.  Reilly does sad-sack wonderfully without becoming annoying, while Lynch is the over-the-top movie marine who could take a bite of metal and spit out bullets – until she reveals a softer side.  As King Candy, Tyduk channels the late, great Ed Wynn as the Mad Hatter.

A nice touch with the animation is the movement of the apartment dwellers in Ralph’s game.  Although the rendering is in current state of the art 3-D graphics, the characters move in the fashion of the old-style games.

The movie’s not on the level of Up, Toy Story or Beauty and the Beast, but it’s a solid film that is sweet without becoming saccharin.  It’s like the cherry that Ralph shares with Q*bert early in the movie – beautiful to look at, kind of tart when you bite into it, but overall pleasant and healthy.