Saturday, November 3, 2012

I'm Gonna Wreck This Review

We T-Rexes are familiar with this problem.

Wreck-It Ralph is not really a video game movie, or even a movie about video games.  It is instead a movie about finding your place in life, and how the simple connections we build with others can really make the difference between feeling like you're a meaningless cog in a wheel and feeling like the hero of your own story.

So what is the story with Ralph? Well, Wreck-It Ralph is the bad guy in an 80's style arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr. His job is to smash up an apartment building, which the titular hero Felix uses his magic hammer to repair until Ralph is defeated and summarily tossed off the building by its tenants. It's basically Donkey Kong meets Rampage. Since he's the villain, Ralph is completely ostracized by the denizens of his game, and after 30 years, he's tired of being the bad guy.

The last straw for Ralph is finding out he wasn't even invited to the 30th anniversary party for the game, and he sets out to earn himself a Hero Medal so that for once, he can be the guy everyone likes.  Fortunately, all the games in the arcade are connected via the power strip such that when the arcade closes at night, all the characters can go hang out in each other's games, giving Ralph the option to sneak into another game and try being the hero.

Now this part of the movie is basically a love letter to gaming.  The Game Central Station, as it were, is just chock full of famous characters and references.  (I'll save my noted ones for the end to prevent spoilers.) As a gamer I was absolutely giddy between this and the BadAnon Meeting hosted in Pac-Man's game, which is sort of an anger management/self-help group for some of gaming's most famous villains that Ralph attends as he tries to sort out his feelings of inadequacy and loneliness.

Unfortunately, Wreck-It Ralph kind of leaves that behind about 1/3 of the way in to focus on the actual story, which takes place almost exclusively in the game Sugar Rush, and when it begins to dawn on you that they're not going back to the other games or that transit hub, it can be a letdown if that's what you're there to see.  It kind of dampened my enthusiasm for the rest of the movie, truth be told, and it's one of the reasons I've still got mixed feelings about it.

Really though, that's probably an unfair criticism, because like the best of the Pixar films, Wreck-It Ralph is about the story and the characters first, and the video game call-outs second.  Thus, instead of a movie about Ralph helping Sonic the Hedgehog rescue Mario from a cadre of gaming villains, it's about Ralph's chance meeting with another ostracized character, that of Sugar Rush's Vanellope von Schweetz.  She's a glitch in her game, and is thus detested by the other characters because her very presence could get their game unplugged.  An unplugged game's characters end up stuck as homeless charity cases in the Game Central Station, and since a glitch cannot leave its game, neither does the movie.

Meanwhile, Felix is searching for Ralph because without him, Felix It Felix Jr. won't operate and will definitely get unplugged, and to top it off, Ralph's intrusion into the first person shooter Hero's Duty has released one of its bad guys into Sugar Rush, something which Hero's Duty femme fatale Sergeant Calhoun sets out to rectify.  They serve as a little extra comic relief B-plot.

The rest of it is fairly predictable, of course, because it's not that this story has never been told, it's just that this is a unique little spin on it. Ralph and Vanellope make an interesting pair, and seeing them come together is actually quite satisfying, no doubt because it's easy to identify with one or both of them.  After all, most of us have worked at least one job where we felt our contribution was totally overlooked or have been disparaged by some clique just for being a little different.

The interesting thing about setting this in a gamer's world is that video games have often been the remedy to those feelings of inadequacy and loneliness, particularly now that so many are online multi-player games that give us the ability to connect with someone half-way across the world in a totally different environment from our own.  Even if you don't meet a friend online, for a few hours you still get to be the hero in a grand adventure instead of that guy doing the same job that nobody seems to like or care about.  I have often argued against those who claim violent video games cause school shootings and other such violent incidents that in actuality, they've probably prevented scores of such killings as well as suicides for these very reasons.

Giving that world its authenticity was no simple task, but they pulled it off in spades.  The animation team does a fabulous job, adding lots of little touches that really emphasize the difference between the games, to say nothing of the background gags.  My favorite thing is that all the characters (save Ralph) in Fix-It Felix Jr. move in the abrupt, two frame way you'd expect from an 8-bit character, even though at that point they are all fully rendered 3D sprites.  Felix is a little bit more fluid, but even when he's outside his game, he still retains a some of that tick.

It's rare that voice acting in a Disney movie is terrible, and this is not one of those rare times. I was surprised I didn't find Vanellope nearly as irritating as one might think from the promos, so kudos to Sarah Silverman for walking the line. John C. Reilly handles Ralph, and he's just spot on.  Jane Lynch and Jack McBrayer round out the heroes in the cast, and you'll find Alan Tudyk doing his best "Mad Hatter" impression for King Candy.

I don't have much to say about Henry Jackman's score because it did not particularly stand out to me. The music does fit right in with each game world such that it's not hard to imagine that what you're hearing is actually the game's soundtrack, but it's a little unfortunate it's not more memorable considering video games have provided us with some of the most memorable pieces of music ever. (And no, I don't count the insidious Jpop theme of Sugar Rush as a stand out for burrowing its way into my brain. S-U-G-A-R Jump into your racing car, it's Sugar Rush! Argh!)

In the end, Wreck-It Ralph may not have had as much video game stuff as I would've liked, but frankly, I got a little choked up a couple of times and that's really out of the ordinary for a cynical cold-hearted T-Rex like me. Wreck-It Ralph is just through and through a good movie that doesn't beat you over the head with its themes but isn't light on them either. I have a feeling that as I watch it again and again on DVD/Blu-ray to try and catch all the video game call-outs, I'll actually find myself noticing even more things to like about the story, the world, and the characters. I highly recommend checking this one out in theaters, especially if you're looking for a family-friendly flick.

So without further ado, I'll talk a little bit about the references I saw in the movie and if you're not interested in spoiling it for yourself, look no further. Or if you're on the main page, do not click the link to the full post. 

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SPOILERS:
Naturally as a Sonic the Hedgehog fan, his were my favorite. Fortunately he is not just in that little billboard thing you see in the previews, which is him giving a PSA about dying outside your game.  He is also present briefly in the background of the 30th anniversary party, and his most amusing entry is getting clipped by Ralph's escape pod as it flies into Sugar Rush, which causes him to drop a bunch of rings.  The credits also feature Vanellope and Ralph game jumping into Chemical Plant Zone in Sonic 2.

I can confirm Mario is not in the movie. It was not a smoke screen for a surprise cameo, and he is only briefly mentioned in a jab at being late to the anniversary party. Way to suck Nintendo.

There is only one full Bad Anon meeting, and it contains all the people from the preview, so no surprises there.  The Bad Anon meeting had one of my best laugh out loud moments when Kano rips out the zombie's heart. Neither Bowser nor Robotnik get any lines, sadly.

Q-bert is featured in the previews and they show just about everything he does.

Pacman's game is, as I mentioned, where the BadAnon meeting is, and Pacman himself shows up at the party.  The other three ghosts are shown in Game Central Station.

As we enter that hub the first time, you can see Chun Li and Cammy from Street Fighter walking around among scores of others, but my favorite was one of the guys from Joust flying overhead.

In Tapper's bar, itself a game reference, you can see Ryu drinking (he and Ken talk about heading there at closing time) and one of the guys from Burger Time in the background.

You can also see some graffiti featuring Leroy Jenkins and Shen Long in the hub entrances.

The ultimate video game meme shows up in Sugar Rush when King Candy opens a secret door using the Konami code.

There's probably a ton of other stuff I have forgotten, mostly stuff like the actual arcade games like DDR, so go see the movie and add yours!