By Charlie Jane Anders
The history of video game movies is a pretty inglorious one, with a higher proportion of awfulness than almost any other genre, except maybe Rapture movies. There’s been Tron, there’s been Last Starfighter, and maybe one or two others. But given how much great storytelling there is in games, it’s weird that Hollywood has been so weak in harnessing that potential.
Which is why Wreck-It Ralph is such a welcome change — it’s a really nifty animated film that does for video games what Toy Story did for toys. Minor spoilers ahead…
And yes, minor spoilers means “minor.” Seen the trailer? You’re fine.
I’ve you’ve seen the trailers, you probably already know the basic story of Wreck-It Ralph. Basically, there’s a 30-year-old 8-bit video game called Fix-It Felix Jr., where a Donkey Kong-esque lout named Ralph destroys an apartment building, Rampage-style, and then the player controls Fix-It Felix Jr., who repairs it with his magic hammer. But after 30 years of being a video-game villain and getting treated like dirt by the people whose homes he destroys, Ralph is sick of it. He wants to be a good guy in his own right, and have people admire him the way they do Felix. So Ralph goes on a quest to find the approval he needs, through a couple very different video games.
And similar to the way the Toy Story films handle the inner lives and complicated politics of toys, Wreck-It Ralph gives us the sense that video game characters have a whole life when people aren’t looking at them or moving them around with a joystick. But even when the games aren’t being played, their characters are largely defined by their roles in the game, and by how people play with them.
But where the Toy Story characters just want to be played with and to stay with their owner, Andy, Ralph’s quest is for self-determination and the right to define himself, rather than let his pre-ordained role in the game define him. At the same time, though, there’s the same sense of deriving your worth from being played with, and of drawing life from the imaginations of children.
The main way that Wreck-It Ralph reminds me of Toy Story, though, is in the world-building and all of the personality it imbues these characters with. The world behind the screen feels totally lived in, and the notion of a back door that allows Ralph and other characters to travel between games, or to a neutral “Game Central Station,” is pretty genius. The movie is so jam-packed with cameos by classic video game characters, and wacky in-jokes, you’d probably have to watch it a couple times to catch most of them. The “video game villain support group” sequence, which you’ve probably seen in the trailers, is pure gold, and so are the other video game pastiches that Ralph travels through.
You can pretty much count on a film like Wreck-It Ralph to be funny, and to have a lot of cute, inventive bits — but the real achievement of a film like this is that you actually care about the characters and the stakes. Ralph’s quest to become something more than what he is never feels entirely petty. You feel Ralph’s pain at being tossed aside and mistreated, and his need to be loved or appreciated feels very human and real.
And the cast is pretty brilliant. John C. Reilly gives a kind of buffoonish dignity to Wreck-It Ralph, even when you start to see how selfish and short-sighted he actually is. Jane TK and Sarah Silverman are also great as characters that Ralph meets on his travels. And Alan Tudyk is fantastic as a campy video game monarch who’s not quite what he seems.
I really don’t want to give away too many spoilers here, but suffice to say the stakes do get raised quite a lot over the course of the movie, and Wreck-It Ralph’s quest to be appreciated as a hero turns into an actual journey of discovery of what it means to be an actual hero.
It’s interesting that all the really decent video game movies have been in some way about games as a form — about play, and what play “means.” Why play requires “good guys” and “bad guys,” and what kind of stories and experiences arise during gameplay. There are no great video game movies that aren’t about video games, rather than just adapting games. Maybe it’s because gameplay is such an important part of our relationship with games, even as the storytelling has become exponentially more complex — the best movies are ones that actually comment on the gaming aspect, rather than just trying to discard it as a vehicle for the story that’s being adapted.
In any case, the genius of Wreck-It Ralph is that it takes one of the simplest possible video-game stories and complicates it — the “bad guy” has a heart and doesn’t actually want to be bad. And yet, at the same time, it reminds us why we love such simple stories, and why we want to believe in good guys and bad guys in the first place. That’s quite a neat trick, and it’s even more impressive that the film does it with so much gentle humor, and such unostentatious cleverness.