I’m always apprehensive about films about something I love, especially when it comes to video games. Movies about video games haven’t had the best history, and I’ll even hold that video game documentaries (The King of Kong and Indie Game: The Movie) are misleading and ultimately negative (albeit, inadvertently) perspectives on the medium. Luckily, Wreck-It Ralph strikes a balance between being affectionate for what I love as well as being a well-crafted and creative film in its own right.
The opening act is a gradual progression in the change of video games over 3 decades. The titular protagonist, Ralph, is the villain in an arcade game called Fix it Felix Jr., an inverse of the arcade hit Rampage where you fix buildings instead of destroying them. Ralph grows uncomfortable with his marginalized status as the villain and decides to prove his mettle in Hero’s Duty, a conglomeration of the first person shooter genre, the most popular game genre today.
The opening act is full of caring homages and subtle in jokes of video games both old and new gives way to a delightful homage to the arcade racer in the form of a candy land type world called Sugar Rush. The film elegantly integrates various types of candy both branded and general into an imaginative and hilarious world, both goofy and deadly.
It’s in this world that the screenplay by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee shines as a delightful play on words. The film has enough jokes for the kids, some slapstick and bathroom humor, as well as a number of gags that will only be appreciated by adults. On this front, I’ll be audacious enough to say that, at least on the humor front, this team outdoes Pixar’s standard of multiple levels of humor for different audiences.
The delightful surprise of the film, and my main reason for loving the film so much, is how it has something meaningful and interesting to say about the video game medium. At the end of the first act, the audience is introduced to Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a spunky inhabitant of the Sugar Rush game. She’s persistent, perky and a bit annoying. Also, in the world of Sugar Rush, she’s considered a glitch, an unstable and undesirable element of the game world.
Within video games, glitches are considered undesirable, often a sign that a game is broken or not well-polished. And while many players take this attitude towards glitches, Wreck-It Ralph shows the potential the glitch has to open up a game to be unpredictable and memorable. The truth is that most video games are going to have some quirks. Instead of spurning them, Wreck-It Ralph asks us to consider how the glitch can make video games endearing in their flawed unpredictability.
Wreck-It Ralph not only manages to say something important and memorable about the video game medium, but also is more than a homage to games, fully committing to making a world that, while not completely original, feels like it could be its own distinct video game. And with the strong writing of both the story and the jokes, Wreck-It Ralph is an absolute joy.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing