Maybe this is just because I’m at the onset of adulthood, but I regard Nostalgia to be a powerful and dangerous drug. It’s pointless, addictive and, of course, impossible to resist.
Wreck-It Ralph is nothing if not nostalgic. Its setting is amongst video games that contributed to a lot of childhoods, with characters like Bowser and Q*bert making cameos. Then there’s the title character, Ralph, an angry ape stand-in from an arcade unit clearly and lovingly based on Donkey Kong, the first Mario game.
There hadn’t yet been a movie that so obviously mined this treasure of nostalgia for video gamers – a subsect of nerdery that gets bigger and bigger every generation. That changes today, though – Wreck-It Ralph is so defined by this hook, you could just refer to it as the Video Game movie.
But Wreck-It Ralph never becomes exists purely to serve its gimmick. Equal parts loving parody and fairy tale, Wreck-It Ralph compares well with Shrek (the good one) – it’s not justified by its sillier, more superficial video game traits, but it builds upon them to make them all the stronger.
Taking a cue from Toy Story, Wreck-It Ralph posits that the video game characters in an arcade (that has somehow survived since the 80s) come to life when humans aren’t looking. They travel between units using the surge protector that every console is plugged into, and they think that they’re people.
That’s especially true of Ralph (voiced by Jon C. Reilly), an NPC villain designed to destroy and be defeated by playable character Fix-It Felix. After thirty years of being thwarted, he sets out into other video games in hopes of being the good guy for once.
Wreck-It Ralph begins as a dizzyingly gleeful throwdown of references. I haven’t been much of a gamer since middle school, but seeing shout-outs to Metal Gear Solid and Halo – games that I haven’t even played – still lit me up. The intensive first half of the movie, which deftly pulls off its difficult task of explaining how its fantasy world operates, sends you to different corners of the Video Game world, from kart racing to awkwardly dated platformers. It’s such a sugar rush that when the story calms down and sticks to one setting in one game, it’s a comedown of sorts – even though that game is called “Sugar Rush”.
But this is also when Wreck-It Ralph shows its bones as a family story first, and a bacchanalia of 8-Bit Love second. It introduces a bad guy, a clearer through-line, and a kid protagonist. That character – Vanellope, a sweetly irritating orphan voiced by Sarah Silverman – pulls a lot more punch than you see coming, and most of the heart in the film would be missing without her. Also noteworthy is Reilly, who barely has to turn on his lovable ol‘ lug charm to jumpstart the movie.
It’s already been pointed out by many that, in a year when Pixar’s movie was about a Princess, Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph feels more in line with Pixar’s sensibilities – it’s high-concept and sharply uses the medium of computer animation to its story’s advantage. But after seeing the film, it’s clear that it also has the heart that has come to define what traditionally separates Pixar from the rest of the pack.