Wreck-It Ralph would be cynical if it didn’t seem so sincere. The concept seems perfectly designed to capture the imagination of children, the hard-earned cash of their parents, and the nostalgia of a generation of twenty-to-thirty-somethings who used to have to project their personalities onto an amorphous jumble of pixels and pretend is was a full-fledged character, before anyone knew that “rendering” was a thing. Now, one of those pixilated characters is alive, and he’s experiencing the same sort of existential crisis that we found in other, better movies like Toy Story and Wall-E.
His name is Wreck-It Ralph, he’s voiced by John C. Reilly, and he wrecks stuff. That is his function in society, that is his purpose in life, that is his destiny. He’s responsible for tearing down an apartment complex filled with barely animated NPC’s (why Ralph is a more complex and fluid character model is never addressed), and his counterpart, Fix-It Felix, played by Jack McBrayer, is responsible for fixing the damage before the building comes down. Ralph is, from the players’ perspective, a “bad guy,” and attends “Bad-Anon” meetings with other video game villains – like M. Bison and Bowser – to deal with the existential crisis that stems from his lot in life. Being a bad guy is his job, but nobody in his video game appreciates him for doing it.
It’s easy to pity Ralph, or even sympathize if, like our protagonist, you have a gig that nobody likes you for doing (tax collectors and film critics come to mind). But despite director Rich Moore’s and writer Phil Johnston’s attempts to make the situation relatable, I can’t wrap my head around it. Think about this: Ralph only does his job because he is programmed to. If he stops, as he does shortly into the film to seek validation in other video games, then his arcade machine appears broken, and everyone in his game will essentially die when their cabinet is retired. It’s happened before, so everyone in Ralph’s game should have a vested interest in appreciating his position in the social strata. Moreover, since everyone in Ralph’s world is given their job from birth – an oppressive caste system if ever there was one – you’d think every other character would sympathize with his plight: why get mad at Ralph for being programmed to wreck your building when you yourself are programmed not to move to a safer neighborhood?
But hate him they do, so Ralph begins “game hopping” to other arcade machines (wait, if only arcade games are in this world, then why is a Nintendo 64 Bowser there?*), in an attempt to earn a “Hero’s Medal,” a.k.a. a symbol of his worth. Ralph quickly cheats his way through a Halo-esque rail shooter and gets that medal, but then gets stuck in a candy-inspired cart racer called “Sugar Rush,” where his medal is stolen by a glitchy little girl named Vanellope Von Schweetz, played by Sarah Silverman, who uses it to enter a race even though King Candy, played by Alan Tudyk, expressly forbids her.
Wreck-It Ralph gets sidetracked in “Sugar Rush” for half of the movie, and it’s hard not to feel disappointed. The concept promises a host of worlds to test Ralph’s character and mettle, and instead of visiting most of them we’re stuck in a single video game with more jokes about candy (two donut security guards are named “Duncan” and “Wynnchel,” for example) than about the games themselves. Perhaps they’re just trying to sabotage that Candy Land movie Adam Sandler keeps threatening us with, and if so I appreciate the effort, but this is neither the time nor place. Wreck-It Ralph abandons its initial, clever and fiendishly marketable conceit for a highly conventional tale about fatherhood (which has nothing to do with Ralph’s inner turmoil, as near as I can tell) and for some reason, royal conspiracies.
But the thing I found most intensely distracting about Wreck-It Ralph is the film’s bizarre message of conformity. Of course the story is about the emotional need to be appreciated for what you do, but when the consequence of doing anything else is cataclysmic catastrophe, it’s hard not to see a perverse moral about accepting your position in society at the expense of your personal freedom and fulfilling your dreams. The best example of this is hard to describe, since it’s the last plot point in the movie, but suffice it to say that the only character who would seem to shirk this trend of punishing non-conformity turns out to have been fulfilling their intended function all along. You are what you are programmed to do, and God help you if you want anything else out of life.
So, unlike most family movies, the message isn’t that you can achieve anything; the message is that you can only achieve so much, and everyone should appreciate you for fulfilling that social function and not rocking the boat. If god forbid you want anything else, the whole world will be shot to hell, and that strikes me as poorly conceived because, surely, I hope, that was not a message intended for little kids. A similar concept was handled more effectively in The Nightmare Before Christmas, which at least made it clear that Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween who tried his hand at Christmas for a change, was just having a little nervous breakdown and temporarily forgot how much he loved his job in the first place. In Wreck-It Ralph the set up isn’t nearly as clearly defined, and the film gets pretty confusing as a result.
But if you can get past these conceptual deficiencies, and the unfortunate sidetracking from the main storyline, Wreck-It Ralph is at least a lively, well-acted, gorgeously animated film with a lot of laughs to its credit. Kids will love it, and adults with lower standards than mine will appreciate its attempts to do for video games what other animated movies have already accomplished for bugs, toys and cars: illustrate their inner worlds with good humor and deft entertainment. I just wish they had actually succeeded at those goals instead of merely applying old story ideas to a universe whose rules do not support them. Wreck-It Ralph is worth a handful of quarters, but not much more than that.
[*Since this article's publication, I have been informed that this particular version of Bowser has appeared in an arcade cart racer, and if so, fair enough. Well played, Wreck-It Ralph. Well played.]