As I have previously mentioned, it is not the best of times to be a Pixar fan. A couple of disappointing releases have slightly tarnished its record of knockout successes - slightly, because a disappointing Pixar film is still a pretty good animated family film by all but its own standards. Wreck-It Ralph is not a Pixar release, but it cannot avoid the comparison; it's still a Disney film, and has John Lasseter as an executive producer. More obviously, its premise of videogame characters with inner lives and personalities of their own not only recalls the Toy Story series, but also A Bug's Life, Finding Nemo and Cars - in Pixar's penchant for creating anthropomorphosized, richly-detailed worlds that also provide opportunities for lots and lots of in-jokes. And its 87% score on RottenTomatoes has already trumped Pixar's last two (Brave scored 79%, Cars 2 38%), raising the possibility that perhaps the parent company is beating them at the game they used to rule.
Perhaps. But only because of what they learned from them.
Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the villain of the Fix-It Felix, Jr. video game at Litwak's Arcade, and he is not very popular. While Felix (Jack McBrayer) is nightly celebrated by the inhabitants of their gameworld, Ralph doesn't even get invited to their game's 30th anniversary party. Wanting to be a hero for a change, Ralph sneaks into Hero's Duty, a 1st-person-shooter game - in which Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) is the main character - in order to win a hero's medal. He ends up in Sugar Rush, a kart-racing game, and meets Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a character with a sad story of her own: she's a "glitch", equally shunned by everyone in her candyland gameworld, and forbidden to participate in the races by King Candy (Alan Tudyk). Ralph and Vanellope partner up to get her in a race and win him his medal, and a friendship grows between the two. But if Ralph isn't in his game, Mr. Litwak will junk their console - and as Felix teams up with Calhoun to find him, they learn that a Cy-Bug monster from Hero's Duty has infected Sugar Rush, thus threatening to destroy two video game worlds.
The trailer prominently features a scene at Bad-Anon, a support group for video game villains, presided by one of the Pac-Man ghosts (Clyde, if you must know) and in which Zangief from Street Fighter, Bowser from Super Mario Bros and Doctor Eggman from Sonic the Hedgehog all make prominent cameos. It's a hilarious scene, and it encapsulates much of Wreck-It Ralph's appeal: appearances by fan-favourite videogame characters, clever in-jokes, and a commitment to fleshing out the inner worlds of videogames right down to the characters. This is one movie you'll want on Bluray DVD so you can pause and admire all the visual detail - from the tiny cameos by more videogame characters (Chun-Li makes at least two appearances if I recall correctly) to the fact that Game Central Station, the terminal in between game machines, is literally a giant multi-plug socket on the inside.
Which is, of course, exactly what you expect of a Disney animated film, even a non-Pixar one. What matters more is a strong emotional throughline that makes us care about the characters, especially our titular hero. And it's there; on one level, we feel for Ralph when he's unappreciated and ostracised from his own gameworld - but on a deeper level, it's about his need to define himself beyond his assigned label as videogame bad guy. Which is echoed by Vanellope, a malfunctioning character in her game who just wants to participate like the rest of her peers. They go from annoying each other - well, more like Vanellope annoying Ralph - to a deep and heartwarming friendship based on their common desires and helping each other realise them.
It's just... we've seen this kind of thing before. Not just the funny anthropomorphosized world, but also the unlikely-friendship storyline. Two wildly differing characters will meet, bicker, then grow in affection towards each other, only to have a heartbreaking fall out, before reconciling in time for a triumphant climax. It's in the majority of Pixar films, as well as most animated films from other studios as well - in fact, come to think of it, it's the classic romantic comedy formula that goes way back beyond Pixar. Which gives Wreck-It Ralph a been-there-done-that feel that's just a little disappointing. It feels like Walt Disney Animation Studios - through director Rich Moore, and writers Phil Johnston, Jennifer Lee and John Reardon - is trying too hard to make a Pixar-ish film and deliberately aping their formula.
Which isn't to say their formula doesn't still work. The fall out is still effectively sad, as is the triumphant and uplifting climax. The jokes are funny, the action scenes are exciting, and the voice acting is terrific. (I did not recognise Alan Tudyk there.) But I wish the film had spent more time exploring other video games instead of staying in Sugar Rush
for most of its second half; the videogame in-jokes are replaced by
candy and confectionery in-jokes, most of which I didn't get. And having Felix and Calhoun fall for each other is a subplot that I didn't enjoy; Felix is uninteresting and poorly-defined for all the screentime he gets, and a character like Calhoun is an ill fit as a romantic interest. Lastly, there just isn't much depth here, nothing more emotionally resonant beyond its be-yourself/be-whatever-you-want-to-be message - which is yet another thing that's been done over and over again in animated films.
Am I expecting too much of this movie? Perhaps I am. Thing is, Pixar is (usually) better than this. They don't always recycle the formula, as with The Incredibles and Wall-E. Even when they followed it, they're daring enough to explore new narrative and thematic territory, as with Up and Toy Story 2 and 3. They've raised the bar high enough that a film like this - even as well-crafted and heartfelt as it is - just clears it instead of soaring above it. To be honest, I might even prefer something as ambitiously flawed as Brave than something content to merely be the Pixar film Pixar never made. Guess I'm a Pixar fanboy through and through; I'm still waiting for their next to knock all our socks off.
NEXT REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey