erik lundegaard

Wreck-It Ralph
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Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Wreck-It Ralph” is about what happens to video-game characters after you leave the arcade. It’s “Toy Story” for the digital age.

Not as good, of course. It’s got some wit and laugh-out loud moments. If you’re a parent and your kid wants to go, I’m sure you’ll appreciate it. If you’re a gamer or computer geek, I’m sure you’ll appreciate it on a deeper level than I did. But I’m neither parent nor gamer so I thought it was merely … OK.

Bad-Anon

Our protagonist and title character is Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), the low-brow, fist-heavy bad guy of the 30-year-old arcade game “Fix-It Felix Jr.” In pixilated low-def, Ralph wrecks a building and Felix (steered by the user, and voiced by Jack McBrayer of “30 Rock”) fixes it; then the residents of the building give Felix a medal, pick up Ralph, and throw him off the roof and into the mud below.

Problem? Ralph is tired of being the bad guy. Even at the end of the day, when the kids go home and the characters are free to do what they want, Felix is feted by the building’s residents while Ralph drags himself to the nearby dump and sleeps on a pile of rocks. He airs his complaints at Bad-Anon, a support group for video-game villains (including one of the ghosts from Pac-Man), who end each meeting with this affirmation:

I’m bad and that’s good.
I will never be good and that’s not bad.
There’s no one I’d rather be than me.

But he’s still lonely. When the building’s residents hold a 30th anniversary party, he crashes it, gets into an argument with Gene (Raymond S. Persi), the mustached fussbudget, and splatters the celebratory cake everywhere with his massive fists. Then he declares he’ll win a medal like Felix and show everyone.

Whither Q*bert?

A few rules of this universe. If a character dies outside their video game they die for good. No regeneration. And if they don’t make it back to their video game in time, they risk the dreaded “Out of Order” sign, which is a step away from being unplugged; then they’ll be forced to fend for themselves in a kind of video-game port authority, with surge protectors policing the area and unplugged characters, such as Q*bert, begging for handouts. Finally, if you try to insert yourself into someone else’s video game, that’s called “going Turbo,” after the character Turbo, who headed up the most popular racing game of the early ’80s. Then another game became more popular so he tried to take it over, which led to both games being unplugged. Lesson there.

Which Ralph, being Ralph, ignores. He learns a medal awaits the winner of “Hero’s Duty,” a high-def, first-person shooter game, and he immediately steals the dark-metal spacesuit of one of its soldiers, then mucks up the game. Worse, he rides, or is ridden by, a spaceship with a Cy-Bug attached, and they wind up in Sugar Rush, a brightly colored, girly, racing game, where the Cy-Bug begins to lay eggs and Ralph quickly loses the medal to a sassy sprite named Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). She sees it as a coin with which she can enter a race, which she’s never done since she’s a glitch: fading in and out of view. But she feels racing is in her code.

For a time they team up. Ralph helps Vanellope train so she can win the race and get his medal back. But then the ruler of Sugar Rush, King Candy (Alan Tudyk doing Ed Wynn), warns him that if Vanellope wins or places, she’ll become a user choice; and when she glitches they’ll complain; and the game will be unplugged and everyone will be forced to leave. Except Vanellope, who, as a glitch, can’t leave the game. She’ll die with it.

Burdened with this news, Ralph, stricken, does what he does best: his big fists wreck Vanellope’s car. It’s his first heroic act of the movie but he’s never felt more like a bad guy.

Worse, when he returns to his own game, an “Out of Order” sign is taped to the window. His absence was noted by gamers, the sign affixed, and Felix Jr., a kind of gee-whiz good guy, went in search of him. Now everyone’s gone. Everyone but Gene, who fussily commends Ralph on his medal before leaving for good.

Cleverbot

This is about when the movie got interesting for me. Up to this point, Ralph has been an unsympathetic character in pursuit of a pathetic goal. But when he heaves his medal against the “Out of Order” sign on the opposite side of the glass, it tilts, and beyond it he sees Vanellope’s face on the “Sugar Rush” game. And a light goes on. If Vanellope was a glitch, why would she be pictured on the game? Now Ralph’s got a better motivation than getting a medal. He needs to find out what King Candy is up to and save Vanellope in the process.

Ready for the big spoilers? King Candy is really Turbo, Vanellope is really a princess, and during the big race the Cy-Bugs hatch and attack. Sugar Rush is defended by Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the hard-ass fem-babe of “Hero’s Duty,” and, most of all, by Ralph, who, through the magic of coca-cola and Mentos, eliminates the Cy-Bugs and Turbo. Order is restored. Felix and Calhoun kiss. Everyone lives happily ever after.

But it’s not clever enough. It’s got clever bits but Pixar movies are steeped in it. This feels like a corporation, the Disney corporation, using its corporate mentality to try to ape the individualistic, artistic sensibility of a company like Pixar. A lot of what they come up with is derivative, a lot is broad, too many opportunities are missed.

The voicework, particularly by Silver, Brayer, Lynch and Tudyk, is fantastic. But our main character? Ralph? And John C. Reilly’s voice that went with him? Annoyed me throughout. I never liked him. I never even felt sorry for him. And I’ve felt sorry for some pretty despicable characters in the movies.

In another lifetime I worked in the video-game industry. I was a software test engineer in the early days of Xbox, working on Xbox-specific sports games like “NFL Fever” and “NBA Inside Drive.” I was the non-gamer in the group, there by accident, a kind of glitch myself, and my job was to find bugs and label them according to severity or “sev.” Sev 1 bugs crash the game, sev 2 bugs halt it in some fashion, sev 3s are annoying, sev 4s are merely suggestions that tend to get ignored by the developer.

I’d label Ralph somewhere between a sev 2 and sev 3 bug. He’s annoying and he halts the movie for me. He’s bad and that’s not good.

I know. By Design.

—November 29, 2012

© 2012 Erik Lundegaard

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