Sugar Rush and Symbology: Review of Wreck-It Ralph

 

Here’s a quick test for you:

1)      Do you like video games?

2)      Have you seen Wreck It Ralph yet?

If your answer to the first question is yes but second is no, then RUN, don’t walk, to your nearest theatre and watch Wreck It Ralph. Not only is it a genuinely excellent film with a surprising amount of heart and emotion, but it is a love-letter to your childhood, a joyful celebration of all things video games, and a welcome nudge and wink to those who understand the secret language of the gaming world.

I’m Bad, and That’s Good

The plot of Wreck it Ralph is simple on the surface but ends up offering a surprisingly deep look at the nature of destiny, punch-clock villains, and the role villains play in games and in life. The titular Ralph is the villain of an old-school arcade game called Fix It Felix, where Ralph destroys a building while the heroic Felix fixes it. In their off hours, Ralph is excluded and ostracized by the other game sprites and struggles with the idea that he HAS to be the bad guy. After a disasterous attempt at party-crashing the 30 year celebration for Felix, Ralph decides to prove his worth by gaining a hero’s medal. To do that, he must game-jump into Hero’s Duty, a Halo/Gears of War-like rail shooter, and try to win the medal there. After a series of confusing events, he and his medal end up in Sugar Rush, a cutesy, candy-coated take on cart-racers like Mario Kart. To get his medal back, he must reluctantly befriend a glitchy sprite called Vanellope and help her win the race… but it turns out that there is much, much more at stake than either of them ever realized.

The storyline of Wreck It Ralph is strong, but it’s also interesting in that it could have gone in several different directions. For example, when the concept of game-jumping is first introduced, it would have been an easy shift to focus on Ralph jumping into multiple games and the comedy and pathos that arose as a result; instead, Ralph only jumps twice, and the main focus of the story is his time in Sugar Rush and his relationship with Vanellope. Felix and the heroes could have been villainized, but instead Felix is a genuinely good guy who has a respectful –if distant – working relationship with Ralph that improves over the course of the story. And (slight spoilers) the motives of the main antagonist are at one point hinted to be far more complex than expected, which could have led to a really compelling and nuanced conflict… but which are then revealed to be false.

But you know, everything still works really, really well. Every single character is likable and relatable, despite being video game characters (or perhaps BECAUSE they’re video game characters). Ralph in particular is interesting because he is an everyman sort of character… and yet his entire character arc focuses on the fact that he’s a villain, and that he’s more than a little ambivalent about the fact. His is a quest for personal redemption and acceptance, which is something we all like to sympathize with… but at the same time, his quest causes chaos and destruction and risks the lives of everyone in Fix it Felix, as without him in his role as villain, the game doesn’t work and is in danger of being declared Out of Order and turned off. In a way, it’s a bit unclear as to what the movie is saying: is the moral to reject the labels people assign to you and cast out on your own, or is it to realize and accept the importance you play in your role, no matter how small? I think it works in the movie’s favor that it doesn’t seem to come down strongly on one side or the other; it’s the sort of thing to talk about with your kids or friends afterwards. Certainly, it may make a few people think twice about writing off “villains” or even “bad people” as purely negative.

Sarah Silverman as Vanellope is also a standout performance as a young girl who first comes off as a bratty half-pint you’ll love to hate but soon wraps herself around Ralph and the audience’s hearts. It makes a certain scene in the third act all the more torturous to watch, and there were more than a few sniffles and wet eyes in my group. I also loved Jane Lynch as the gruff Sergeant Calhoun, a no-nonsense military woman “programmed with the most tragic of backstories.” Felix seems at first to be a bland, uninteresting “hero” type, but he ends up having a lot of genuine charm and sweetness to him, and his genuine respect for everyone – even Ralph – makes him a great moral center for the movie. And check out Alan Tudyk (aka Wash from Firefly) doing his best Mad Hatter impersonation as the Candy King.

Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A

As strong as the core of the movie is, however, what nudges the movie from “pretty good” to “HOLY CRAP AWESOME” has got to be the beautiful litany of video game in-jokes that spill off the screen and the script. I said once that Scott Pilgrim was a love letter to gamers and geeks, but compared to Wreck it Ralph, it seems like a sweet but awkward Valentine you gave when you were in grade school, while Wreck It Ralph is a beautiful poem that makes you sigh and write little hearts in your notebook that say “Mrs. Mario” etc.  Make no mistake, this isn’t a movie “for the kiddies,” this is a movie for YOU.

Some of the jokes and references are pretty broad and easily picked up by anyone. Hero’s Duty, for example, has a lot of funny moments that poke fun at the sort of bombastic militarism that those kinds of shooters tend to go for, complete with pumping Skrillex and a single screen on wheels representing the player following along. But when the movie gets to Game Center, the hub where all video game characters mingle in their off-hours, the gloves come off and the screen fills with characters obscure and beloved, Chun Li chatting with the Pitfall hero, the Tapster barman serving drinks to Dr. Robotnik, and so on. Ralph’s Villains Anonymous meeting is a particularly standout sequence as Bowser, Blinky, Zangief and the zombie from House of the Dead all philosophize on the nature of evil. Heck, Q-Bert is a major character of sorts. Newer gamers and children may not recognize this host of familiar faces, but those who grew up in front of gaming consoles or arcade screens will be pointing out characters and giggling their way through much of the movie.

But Disney did not just license a bunch of characters and call it a day; they weave those games we used to love into the very fabric of the world, beyond just silly visual cameos. A vital password to a vault is the same as the famous Konami code. The sprites of Fix it Felix, even when rendered in full 3D CG, move in the same distinctive, “jumpy” way that 8 bit characters move, giving them a sense of personality and surprising realism you wouldn’t expect in, well, an 8 bit world. Characters accuse Ralph of going “Turbo,” and while this is revealed late in the movie to be a reference to another rogue character called Turbo, it will also resonate deeply with gamers of a certain age… as it was Street Fighter II Turbo that brought in the villains as playable characters! Even Ralph himself, his whole character arc, is informed by the nature of the games we have been brought up with. Why is he a villain? Because he wrecks stuff. Why? Because that was what he was designed to do in the game. The fact that he can only ever smash things – because that is his solitary role in Fix it Felix, the big buffoon who smashes windows so the player can fix them – is a source of real angst and frustration for him, and it all comes together in that aforementioned One Scene that breaks your heart, where he must use his one skill in life to do something both noble and awful. And again, at the core, is the question; what does it mean to be a hero? What does it mean to be a bad guy? And how does the very design of a video game constrain, elevate or denigrate them all?

It’s all of these small little details that really excite me as a geek because it points to a future in movies where our own cultural cues – our games, our comics, our anime – will be used as shorthand and symbols with the same ease that music, TV and other movies are. While your average movie can fling in references to Sex in the City or Elvis Presley, we may be encountering a generational shift where a movie can reference Frogger or Donkey Kong with as much certainty that the audience will get it. We’re beginning to see more of this as time goes on; Thor, for example, has the scenes in the vault where every item on the walls is some recognizable artifact from Marvel continuity, e.g. the Infinity Gauntlet, the Warlock’s Eye and the Tablet of Life. But while the Marvel movies keep their comic continuity nods in the background, unconnected to the story, Wreck It Ralph signals a possible new approach, bringing the geeky memes to the forefront and integrating them with the story. These game references are no longer just sight gags, but full on symbols – things that communicate meaning and ideas beyond a simple word or image.  Bowser. 8 Bit. Turbo.

Would a non-gamer fully appreciate this movie? Uncertain, but this gamer certainly does.  For those with the right cultural knowledge, Wreck it Ralph is a treasure.  Intertwined with its strong story of redemption and belonging is another story, a narrative told through familiar faces and themes, giving a startling sense of solidarity with the world the movie creates. “We GET you,” they seem to say, with a fistbump. Hopefully, it will be the first of many that we can fistbump back.

 

What did you think of Wreck It Ralph?

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