2012’s Best Animated Feature Oscar for Brave shows us just how powerful branding can be. The Pixar label swayed Academy voters, most of whom failed to notice that it didn’t feel much like a Pixar flick at all. The brain-trust responsible for the studio’s extraordinary creative run picked up stakes for Disney, and their ethos was on full display with one of Brave’s fellow nominees, Wreck-It Ralph. That film showed us all the wit and imagination that we expected from Pixar, while Brave remained a run-of-the-mill princess movie at best. The voters never looked past the studio names. Brave scored the gold, while the infinitely more deserving Wreck-It Ralph had to console itself with also-ran status. Hit the jump for my full review.
Ironically, that proves very appropriate for a movie about an unappreciated video game villain who sets out in search of a little validation. It’s a minor masterpiece, finally capturing the essence of video game culture in ways that more straightforward adaptations always missed. The Blu-ray release gives us another chance to take a look, and hopefully earn it a few more fans in the process.
Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) certainly fits in with Pixar’s gaggle of scruffy outcasts. In his world, video game characters are working joes who keep the kids entertained, only to kick up their heels once the arcade closes for the night. Unfortunately, the fellow denizens of his game view him as a loutish thug rather than the diligent co-worker he believes himself to be. He sets out to prove what he’s made of, traveling through the arcade’s strip plug to other games like Hero’s Duty and Sugar Rush, and unleashing all kinds of mayhem in the process.
Ralph’s 8-bit world is full of block squares, and his “co-workers” move in the same jumpy fits and starts evinced by games from the 80s. Similar conceits define the other worlds he travels to, most of which look far more modern, and evince sophisticated game-play that Ralph finds more than a little intimidating. Director Rich Moore cleaves closely to the Hero’s Journey, with Ralph discovering his true worth as unrecognized dangers arise to threaten the entire arcade.
More importantly, Wreck-It Ralph follows through on the notion of living video game characters in surprisingly creative ways. What could have been a Toy Story knock-off defiantly sets itself apart with its innate knowledge of gaming’s history and characters. Wreck-It Ralph is populated by a huge plethora of supporting figures, some of which come from actual games, and some of whom were created solely for the movie, but who tickle the funny bone in such a way that you swear you played their games once. To that, Moore throws in some gloriously clever riffs, like the villain support group Bad-Anon who meet in Pac-Man’s central square, or the Tapper game where everyone goes to drown their sorrows.
That’s the key to its success. The story itself works quite well, especially when Ralph comes to the aid of a misfit “glitch” (voiced by Sarah Silverman) trying to make it on Sugar Rush’s racing circuit. But Moore girds it with this clever, knowing universe that celebrates gaming culture as a whole. We see these figures in their purest essence, not morphed into live action figures for a new medium, but exactly how we remember them in the arcade (and, more importantly, the way we think they might behave when the lights go off). Most movies of this ilk score the rights to a single game and try to craft a narrative from its often-threadbare storyline. Wreck-It Ralph deftly avoids that pitfall, then broadens its scope to encompass every aspect of this idiom. Children of the 80s will smile as Pac-Man gobbles up shrimp cocktails at a party, while their younger siblings will smirk at the Mario riffs and their children will nod knowingly at the first-person shooter gags resplendent in Hero’s Duty.
Add that to a strong narrative and a winning collection of characters, and you have the kind of home run that Pixar used to excel at. With it, Disney steps firmly away from the Princess formula that defined it for so long, and sets a course that affirms its status as the reigning king of animation. Wreck-It Ralph may have missed the big trophy at the Oscars, but as its protagonist can tell you, trophies don’t say anything about the qualities that really count.
As we expect from Disney, the sound and picture quality on the Blu-ray are above reproach, making for an unparalleled viewing experience. Unfortunately, the extra features are quite sparse: deleted scenes, previews, some fun trailers for the movie’s fictional games, an Intermission feature which pops up when you hit the pause button, and a short feature on the movie’s world creation process. The highlight is “Paperman,” the beautiful Oscar-winning short that prefaced Wreck-It Ralph in theaters. The Blu-ray set contains DVD, 3-D and digital copies as normal, but it’s still pretty thin soup from a studio whose releases often spoil us with their copious extras. Luckily, the film itself remains the primary draw, and with quality this high, that’s all you really need.