I am just old enough to remember a day when video game arcades were still relevant. Arcades like the Capcom-owned Nickel City, where I spent so many nickels for a good day’s entertainment, quickly fell by the wayside with the advent of the internet and high-definition gaming. Yes, we may have fancier graphics and more sophisticated mechanics, but there is still a hole left by true arcade gaming outside of amusement parks that nothing may ever truly fill.
“Wreck-it Ralph,” the latest from Disney animation studios, is nothing less than a love letter to the days when arcades ruled children’s lives. The arcade where the movie’s action takes place may very well make the film a period piece. It’s the kind of place where kids line up outside the door, full of sugar pockets full of quarters, waiting for the arcade to open.
In that arcade resides “Fix it Felix, Jr.,” a classic video game celebrating its 30th anniversary. In that game lives Wreck-it Ralph (John C. Reilly), a prototypical “bad guy” whose sole job is to wreck the same building, day after day. Felix fixes it, becoming a hero to the residents, while Ralph is cast out and forced to spend his nights sleeping in a garbage dump.
In an ingenious plot device, when the arcade closes, the video game characters finish their “day jobs” of acting out their games and proceed with their lives. The arcade cabinets are connected by Game Central Station, where all characters from different games can mill about and visit different game worlds.
After 30 years, Ralph has had enough of being the reviled villain, and decides he wants to try being a hero. So, he sets out for “Hero’s Duty,” a hardcore sci-fi action game, in hopes of winning a medal so that everyone back in his game will like him.
After Ralph wins the medal, things go horribly awry, and he finds himself in “Sugar Rush,” a candy-themed racing game, where he meets Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), who is determined to become a big racer in that game’s world. As his heart softens, Ralph decides he wants to help Penelope, in hopes that he will win his medal, which has been taken by King Candy (Alan Tudyk), the ruler of “Sugar Rush,” back.
If the names aren’t any indication, the film is replete with classic video game references, and the movie’s major joy comes from the resplendent visuals and the detailed backgrounds. Very few scenes do not feature a classic video game reference of some sort; everything from Pac-Man to Pong to Sonic the Hedgehog to Street Fighter. Even more obscure games like Tapper make appearances. The visuals are presented in stark contrast, as the worlds change from the gritty harshness or “Hero’s Duty” to the sumptuous brightness on display in “Sugar Rush.”
Most of the film’s humor will fly over kids’ heads, but they will enjoy the bright visuals; most of the film’s jokes are aimed squarely at the gaming faithful. Every once in a while, a movie comes along to cater to exactly the kind of geeky audience that eats stuff like this up. It’s by far the most overtly geeky movie since “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and will probably be looked upon with similar reverence by fanboys, although the mass-market appeal of “Ralph” should ensure it a much better fate at the box office.
As Ralph’s game hopping reveals a danger that threatens to overtake the entire arcade, an incredibly unique thrill ride is born. There’s just so much going on in “Wreck-it Ralph,” all of it entertaining and often quite funny, but it would be very easy for the filmmakers to lose track in the visuals and action and forget to create a compelling story at the center. Thankfully, the film has a surprising heart. Ralph is likable from the get-go, and his character growth seems natural and satisfying. His relationship with Penelope is one of the sweetest in recent memory, and even his interactions with Felix and the fellow characters in his game world never seem anything less that genuine. Reilly brings a surprising tenderness to the role, recalling some of his better roles in films like “Chicago” and “Gangs of New York.” The voice cast, which also includes Jane Lynch and Ed O’Neil, is excellent all around.
If there’s one complaint, it’s that the film felt the need to shoehorn in a traditional villain in order to have an epic climax. I was perfectly happy following along on Ralph’s journey to prove himself. Even worse, having a villain goes against the “bad guys are not really bad guys” theme that the movie tries so hard to get across.
But, that’s really a minor flaw in a film that exceeds expectations on every level. Some traditional Disney tropes are present and accounted for, but the unique characters, setting and dialogue give it more of the freshness of a golden-era Pixar film. If the classic arcade of yore is truly dying, “Wreck-it Ralph” is set to assure that it goes out in a blaze of glory. Even better, it’s a perfect opportunity for parents to introduce to their kids the games that defined their childhood.
Side note: There is a surprisingly excellent animated short titled “Paperman” that plays before the movie. As excellent as “Wreck-it Ralph” is, the short was still a highlight. It’s very likely a shoo-in for a ‘best animated short’ Oscar nomination.