Re-watching movies is a very curious thing. I’ve you’ve been reading the entries in this Disney Canon Project of mine, then you might have expected me to have such an opinion. After all, the main reason to have watched and reviewed all the movies produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios was -besides nerdy completism- curiosity to see what I would think of the movies I loved in my childhood after watching them again. It was worth it, since many of opinions of them changed. Some for the better, some for the worse, but all in interesting ways. Anyway, this is all to say that, very fittingly with the reasons for the creation of the project, my opinion of Wreck-It Ralph has changed quite a bit in the two years since I first saw it.
Back in 2012, when I still had the old blog, I wrote a very enthusiastic review of the movie, in which I expressed my happiness for what I was starting to sense was a new golden period for Disney. It is true that the studio’s success (both critically and financially) has only grown since John Lasseter was appointed creative chief, but while I used to think Wreck-It Ralph was a ket ingredient in said growth, I now have much more mixed feelings about it. I still think that it is, after all, a good movie. But I find in it a lot to question and analyze (which is good, since I’m writing a blog post about it). To do so, I’ve decided to look at Ralph through a number of movies to which it has been often compared to. Somewhat tellingly, none of these movies are part of the Disney Canon.
The first thing people said about Wreck-It Ralph (myself included) was that it felt like Disney was making a Pixar movie. 2012 really felt like a Freaky Friday year for animation, with Pixar making a Princess movie (Brave) and Disney delving into the basic formula that had made a success out of Pixar. Because if there ever was a Pixar formula (especially during the company’s first years), it included presenting the audience with a colorful, and fantastical part of our world that we didn’t know about. Like the secret life of ants and other bugs in A Bug’s Life, the life of the monsters that hide in our closets in Monsters, Inc., and most similar to Wreck-It Ralph, the secret life of toys in the Toy Story trilogy.
There is no denying that Wreck-It Ralph follows this formula very closely. It is, after all, the story of the secret life of video game characters, and what happens behind the scenes at a local arcade. The protagonist of the story is Ralph (John C. Reilly), the Donkey Kong-like villain of a game called “Fix-It Felix Jr.”. Ralph is tired of having to play the villain part and not being accepted by the other characters, so he decides to leave his game so he can win a medal and prove his worth as a hero.
One of the big selling points in the publicity before the release of Wreck-It Ralph was how Disney had managed to get the rights to hundreds of different video game characters in order to have them make cameos in the movie. Although there are many pre-existing toys featured in Toy Story, the most accurate precedent for what was going on in Wreck-It Ralph was Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which featured classic cartoon characters from many different studios. Now, in my opinion, Zemeckis did a wonderful job of getting enough jokes out of the cameos without letting them overwhelm the story he was trying to make, but before its release, the trailers for Wreck-It Ralph made it look as if the movie was happy to coast on the nostalgia.
That is why a lot of people were surprised when, if anything, Wreck-It Ralph didn’t feature as many cameos as one would have expected. It is clear that director Rich Moore (who prior to this had directed some of the best episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama) was interested, above all, in telling a good story, and I respect him immensely for that. I do have a small quibble with the fact that the movie is very front-loaded as far as cameos go. It’s understandable since the structure of the story doesn’t allow for many cameos in the second half, but I do think that besides a few very solid jokes, involving Tapper and Pac-man, most of the cameos are just appearances without much cleverness to them. That being said, while most of the cameos might be underwhelming, there are many in-jokes about the logic of video games that really work for me, and that show how meticulous Moore and his collaborators were when trying to make this a video game world. A good example is at the end of the following clip, where you can see a character keep walking after he has hit a wall.
But let’s get back to the story, so I can tell you that the movie Wreck-It Ralph has the most in common with from a story perspective is actually none of Pixar’s movies, but Dreamworks’ Shrek. They’re both about a big, clumsy, and hot-tempered solitary hero that must pair up with a little and supposedly funny character to discover his importance and self-worth in his world. And in both cases, the movies populate their worlds with comedic bends on famous characters (video games for Ralph, fairy tales for Shrek). If you’ve been reading these posts regularly, you probably know by now that I don’t think much of Shrek, so I want to say straight away that I think Wreck-It Ralph is a better movie, because while Shrek is very concerned with being hip and subversive with its comedy and pop-culture references, Wreck-It Ralph is even a little dull at times for how much of its “cool movie about video games” credit it is willing to shed aside in order to keep the story going.
The ultimate value of Wreck-It Ralph is, of course, on how much mileage it manages to take out of the relationship between Ralph and Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a little girls he befriends in the candy-themed racing game “Sugar Rush”, who, like him, is an outcast within her own game. Reilly and Silverman both do pretty fantastic work as the voices of Ralph and Vanellope, and while the story of a stubborn hero who is soften by a funny kid has been done many times before (including by Disney), it is a formula that works, especially when done well. I was especially surprised by how endearing I found Silverman’s vocal work. I was prepared for Vanellope to be very grating, and yes, she has to deliver a few unfunny jokes, but she is less of a comedic sidekick than a second protagonist, and her emotional ark is very satisfying.
I said in the first paragraph that my second viewing of Wreck-It Ralph had hurt it in my estimation, but so far I haven’t said anything all that negative. This is part of the problem I have with the movie. That while there is nothing that I find truly terrible about it, it never quite comes together in the way the best animated movies do. As far as movies that try to imitate Pixar’s style go, it is as close as you’ll get without being the real thing, but it does miss that extra cleverness, and the thematic roundness of the best Pixar films. I have a pretty good idea of what the themes that Wreck-It Ralph wants to explore are, but I am very unclear, and somewhat concerned with the question of what its message is. Not that all movies need to have a message, but I do think it’s valuable that children movies be careful about the message they are giving out, and it seems to me like Wreck-It Ralph is saying that you should just stick to whatever you’re born into and not try to change.
But like I said, those are aspects that keep Ralph from being a great movie, but not ones that keep it from being an enjoyable one. Critics (and myself) certainly found it to be really good when it came out. Many went as far as to say it was the best animated movie of the year, which, ok, 2012 was a very underwhelming year for animation, but there is no way that Wreck-It Ralph, which is fun and entertaining could be called the best the same year that saw the release of ParaNorman, which is simply one of the most brilliant animated masterpieces of recent years.
Next Week: There may not be any more movies in the Canon for me to review, but the Project isn’t quite over yet. Stick around the next couple of weeks for a bunch of Disney-related lists, starting with a ranking of my favorite movies in the Canon.