Wreck-It Ralph

Pixar and Soda
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2012
Director: 
Rich Moore
Starring: 
John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch
The Setup: 
Video game character grows disenchanted with being the bad guy.
Discussion: 

You know how all the airlines have been consolidating, with the crappy American ones buying the quite nice European ones, like Delta buying Air France, and you think "Oh no, now Air France is just going to be brought down to the level of Delta." Which is precisely what happens? And you used to think, if traveling to Europe, "Well, I'll just book with a European airline, and have more legroom and better food, and nicer service," only to find that, even though you booked with Air France, you're in a shitty Delta tin can with no legroom and crappy food and waitstaff that are passing down the shitty treatment they get from their company down onto you?

That was a bit of the fear of what might happen when learning that Disney had bought Pixar, and were going to commingle their creative teams. And one of the results is Wreck-It Ralph, which is quite good for a Disney film, but not as good as a pure Pixar film (and while the jury is still out on what might become of Pixar, you have to admit that Brave was quite good, but not great). It seems that you put them in the water together, and you end up with a level above Disney, but below Pixar.

We open with exposition about the video game, Fix-It Felix, Jr., which is a thin gloss on Donkey Kong. There's a flat apartment building, Ralph wrecks it, and the player controls Felix as he climbs up and fixes it, and if he makes it to the top, they throw Ralph off. Then we join the characters, a Toy Story-esque idea that the characters are real and exist inside the game, where all of the apartment dwellers love Felix, but Ralph is left to sleep on a pile of bricks in the dump next door. One idea I liked is that there's a huge window in the sky that represents the front window of the arcade game. Anyway, Ralph goes to a support group for bad guys who tell him he just has to accept that he's the bad guy.

Ralph crashes a party of the apartment dwellers, where there is one in particular, with a little mustache, nasal voice and tidy fashions, who is not explicitly identified as such but reads as a bitchy queen, and is particularly hateful (and comes back for a featured encore, mid-movie). It feels homophobic to have one character be the featured hateful asshole, and code that character as gay. Anyway, though a series of events Ralph comes to believe that if he wins some kind of medal, he will instantly be accepted, and you'd be surprised how much of the action this simplistic idea motivates.

We have more exposition about how characters can visit other games, but that if you die in another game, you die for real. This rule is rather arbitrary, but there to give this whole thing some stakes. The power strip serves as an explicitly-compared Grand Central Station for characters between games, an idea that's cute, but again seems recycled from previous Pixar films. Ralph goes into a violent first-person shooter in which they're killing Starship Troopers-esque bugs (not, notably, other humans or zombies) and meets Jane Lynch as Calhoun, tough-as-nails, large busted military commander, who is a hilarious conceit now and throughout the film. Ralph gets a medal, escapes the game, and ends up in Sugar Rush, a kids' game that takes place in a candy fairyland. There he meets Vanellope Van Schweetz, voiced by Sarah Silverman, who is an obnoxious (but adorable!) brat who wants to compete in the big car race.

So blah, blah, it goes on with the expected blend of cleverness, cuteness and emotional engagement. Along the way there is an prominent and unmistakable product placement for Subway, not integrated into the story at all, but several others that are given thin narrative pretexts for being there, like Nesquiksand or Mentos, both called out by name. The climax of the entire film hinges on the Mentos and Diet Coke effect, by the way. This is also a key differentiator from pure Pixar: in Pixar films, the brands are thinly-disguised parodies, like the Buy-n'-Large superstores of Wall-E (or are so old as to not seem like enticements to buy, like the appearance of Mr. Potato Head in Toy Story) and this gives you a little distance as a viewer, as it is referencing something but not sending a commercial message, and doesn't disrupt the narrative. But Disney doesn't care so much about that, and if the two key takeaways from this film are you need to believe in yourself and YOU SHOULD EAT AT SUBWAY then that's just fine with them.

SPOILERS > > >
So things start to get complicated. Vanellope is a computer glitch (and am I just being paranoid to remark that her glitch looks straight out of Disney's rebooted Tron franchise?) and at a certain point, the king comes out to tell Vanellope that she can't win the race, even though that is her dream, because if she does, users will see the glitch and the entire game, already pretty old, will be considered out of order and thrown out. Interesting, nuanced and ambiguous idea, right? This is when ears start pricking up. Unfortunately, turns out that this whole, interesting concept is a lie, and the truth is a sadly mundane tale of deception that returns the whole narrative to the realm of the expected and safe. The movie wraps up with the expected frenetic climax and by hitting all of the cliche beats, the end.
< < < SPOILERS END

So that's kind of the main impression: It was clever, it was funny, it's pretty to look at, then it started to get interesting... but it wasn't. As the movie starts to wrap up, bit by bit it just starts to return to the conventional, the simplistic, as well as the required busy spectacle, a massive bug attack. Which gives you that big sigh about the melding of Disney and Pixar. This movie was executive produced by John Lasseter, and it kind of seems like exactly what it is: a Disney movie that underwent a lot of Pixarization. And it's not bad, it'll not be wasted time at the movies, it's just that the Pixarish elements raise hopes the Disneyish elements just can't deliver on.

Should you watch it: 

It'll do in a pinch. It's not bad, it's just palpable how much better it could have been.