Saturday, November 10, 2012

Late to the Game: Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph”

Disney’s Fifty-Second Animated Feature – 2012
I was literally in the dark when this film opened last week, put in the dark by Hurricane Sandy. Now that our lights are back on, I was itching to get to the theater to see Disney’s latest feature. Wreck-It Ralph is the first feature film for tv director Rich Moore (Drawn Together, Futurama, and The Simpsons, to name a few) and writers Phil Johnston (a few tv movies and shorts) and Jennifer Lee (her first film), which surprised me. Disney is willing to bet the candy store on a group of newbies? Will this be revolutionary? No spoiler here: no. Wreck-It Ralph delivers great entertainment value, but it’s more dependable than original.

Ralph crashes the Fix-It Felix
anniversary party. 
The character Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilley) is the unsung bad guy in the arcade game Fix-It Felix Junior. Ralph wrecks a high-rise; Felix fixes it. But Felix gets to be the beloved hero during the game and (more importantly) after hours when the arcade is closed and the characters live their lives in the world of their games. The last straw comes for Ralph when he isn’t even invited to the thirtieth anniversary party for the Fix-It Felix game. Ralph desperately wants to change his lonely life. When he crashes the anniversary party, one of the residents makes a pledge: if Ralph can become a bone-fide, medal-winning hero, he’ll be accepted by the group and he can even move into the penthouse apartment. Ralph decides to make his name (and win his medal) in a first-person shooter game. He accidentally unleashes a destructive virus that threatens every game in the arcade. As he struggles to undo what he has done, he gets sucked into a girlie candy-land racing game called Sugar Rush where he meets smarty-pants Vanellope Von Schweetz (voiced by Sarah Silverman).

Vanellope Von Schweetz befriends
On the plus side, the film is visually stunning and makes great use of existing pop music. It’s rated PG for rude humor and some violence. But I would say younger viewers primarily need parental guidance because the pop culture references are impossible for kids to understand. It’s scary because it’s not particularly engaging on a narrative level for youngsters, so the visual shocks are all kids can cling to. The casting is almost too spot-on. Added to the expected nice-guy schlump of John C. Reilley and sarcastic Sarah Silverman are Jane Lynch as a female drill sergeant (Sergeant Calhoun); Jack McBrayer as the polite, innocent, sweet guy (Fix-It Felix Jr.); and Mindy Kaling as the valley girl (Taffyta Muttonfudge). Everyone does great just as they have done many times before and I’m just thinking that each and every one of these actors would love to break out of their own personal stereotype. But that’s for another day and another movie.

Ralph at his support group.
This is Disney meta: it’s so filled with grown-up references, I’m not sure this is technically a kid’s movie. As a grown-up, I appreciate it when I’m tossed the occasional treat by a kid film’s creators; but in this case, I was wishing for more content for the kids. On the one hand, I can’t imagine kids will understand the Al-Anon-style support group of arcade villains that Ralph attends as he laments his sad fate; and on the other, I wish the creative team could have come up with a more original plot device.

Inside the video game Sugar Rush.
And the story was complicated and sophisticated, even philosophical in nature. At its core, it’s a story about a lonely man—Wreck-It Ralph—who wishes for a family and finds one as a step-dad to Vanellope. This basic plot was beautifully (and originally) realized in the 2009 Disney/Pixar production Up. But in Up, there was a plot that kids could follow, so there really was something for everyone in that film. This plot is clever but often too clever for anyone younger than a teen; so why the kid-like trappings? Will kids get all the references to vintage arcade games or appreciate that King Candy is an obvious homage to actor Ed Wynn? Doubt it.

Maybe we’ve all come full circle: we grown-ups get to watch a children’s film made just for us; and people who are the creator’s of kid’s media get to delve into sophisticated themes; though it does leave the actual children in the dust. I’d call this the perfect tween-and-up family film. Your kids will need to bring YOU along to explain all the references. So parents, enjoy it while you’ve got it. This kid’s movie is for you.

All art ©Disney. Used by permission. Not for reuse.


  1. I have to disagree about what kids will get out of this movie. My 4 kids (12, 8, 5, 2) all loved it! My sister-in-law took them to see it two weeks ago and, except for the 2 year old, they are all still talking about it.

    1. That's wonderful to hear. It's great when a movie--any movie--keeps kids talking about it for weeks. I personally liked it, but my four-year-old didn't connect with it. I've noticed it's the number one comedy in America right now, so a lot of people agree with you. Thanks for your comment!