Monday, November 12, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph

Vidya games, ladies and gentlemen! Love 'em or hate 'em, there's no denying their staying power in popular culture. And in an era of innumerable Medal of Duty: Call of Honor-type games, there's an emerging nostalgia and appreciation taking root for the 8-bit titles of yore. Simple graphics and basic gameplay haven't deterred gamers from forsaking the photorealistic worlds of many modern games, if even for a little, to dabble in the simple joys of platforming, side-scrolling video games.

It's seems that nostalgia has gone on to manifest itself on the silver screen; Wreck-It Ralph has emerged among the best animated films of this year. Following the titular character, the movie chronicles the identity crisis of Ralph (John C. Reilly) as he begins to question whether or not he wants to be "the bad guy." In an attempt to change his life, he ventures out of his own game in search of something that will endear him to the other characters in his world. In so doing, he unwittingly sets off a chain of events that will teach him and those around him what it means to be yourself.

Sheesh...when I put it like that it sounds so bland. But trust me when I say that Wreck-It Ralph is anything but bland.


Since Pixar came onto the scene, simultaneously revolutionizing animation and setting the bar unimaginably high for other studios, it seems that most animated features have been delegated one of two groups: Pixar movies and non-Pixar movies. Plenty of non-Pixar animated features have been wonderful; Bolt and Madagascar are the first that come to mind. But there's always been a sense that they're just not quite on par with Pixar's brilliance. That still largely remains the same, but there's a growing case against that categorization, as more and more non-Pixar animated features come closer to living up to the standards set by the previously mentioned. Wreck-It Ralph is the latest title in that case; and it's a great movie.

Its greatest strength is undoubtedly its characters and how they're realized. John C. Reilly's voice seems so perfectly matched to his character you almost forget he's the man behind the mic. As much can be said of Jack McBrayer, who voices Fix-It Felix, Jr. - the protagonist and player character of the game which serves as home to them both. Sarah Silverman voices Vanellope von Schweetz, a 9-year old in a racing game called Sugar Rush. While her voice was still recognizable, she subtly alters some of her projection and pronunciation for effect and it works beautifully. I'm not a huge Sarah Silverman fan, but this movie definitely endeared me to her more than I expected. And finally, Jane Lynch voices the battle-hardened Sergeant Calhoun, one of the lead characters in Hero's Duty - another fictional game in the world of the movie. Each character has a marvelous set of unique qualities that brought them to life in the script, and each actor behind them further fleshes out the features that make them a joy to watch. Jack McBrayer's cartoonish optimism almost marks Fix-It Felix as a kind of caricature of Kenneth Parcel, his 30 Rock character. Jane Lynch delivers each of her lines with an effected gravity and world-weariness, occasionally dishing out a ridiculous simile for effect: "A selfish man is like a mangy dog...chasing a cautionary tail..."

The animators behind Wreck-It Ralph have done more than just create characters that are fun to look at, each character very much fits into the game from which they come. For example, in the "real world" of the game, 8-bit characters still appear in the cartoony CGI that characterizes much of the film, but they move differently. For example, the tenants of the building that it's Ralph's job to wreck all move and emote the way they would if they were still rendered with 8-bit graphics: bouncing up and down in a jerking-type motion. It's almost as if they've been animated with stop-motion techniques, rather than in the "smooth" 24 frames per second way characters from other games do.

It would seem like an obvious thing to say that Wreck-It Ralph is a love-letter to video games, but there are so many references and meta-references to gaming I'm sure I didn't catch 'em all. Characters from numerous iconic titles like Mario, Sonic, Q-Bert, Street Fighter, and dozens more all make cameos throughout the film and each one is more entertaining than the last. But the movie doesn't hinge on an understanding or appreciation for video games to enjoy; the meat of the story is carried out in fictional video games that are broadly relatable to a myriad of titles.

And while not directed at Wreck-It Ralph proper, the movie opens with a short animated feature - much in the way Pixar presents their films - called Paperman. It's an absolutely lovely little piece that combines sketch animation with CGI; essentially the subjects look sketched but move in a more three-dimensional environment. But apart from looking visually stunning it's a heart-warming and humorous tale that acts a great little appetizer before Wreck-It Ralph.


Thankfully, nothing really comes to mind for this section. Unless you have a particularly distaste for animated features, there's not much to dislike here. Little ones might find the perilous climactic battle scene to be a bit on the scary side, but not horrifyingly so.


Wreck-It Ralph might be the best non-Pixar animated movie I've seen; it's at the very least on par with Bolt, Shrek, or the original Madagascar. Everything about the movie is satisfying: it's well written, the characters are unique and well-developed, there's an engaging story underpinning the whole affair. It's just a top notch film from every angle.

Equally as important, the movie is genuinely funny and uses a variety of comedic devices. Video game and pop culture references abound, but where they aren't accessible to non-gamers there's still plenty of generic funny to go around. There are a few sillier moments with slapstick, but even they are executed in a hysterical way.

There's so much here to like, and even more to love. Wreck-It Ralph is 100% Grade A fine film making, animated or otherwise. And as with any great animated movie, there's something for everyone. Kids will undoubtedly gobble up its wackiness and unabashed commitment to fun, and adults will find more than a measure of jokes geared to go over the kids' heads. If Disney Animation Studios keeps producing this kind of quality film-making, Pixar might wanna watch their back.

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