It’s easy, through the divorced-from-childhood eyes of adulthood, to assume that cartoons- all bright colours, manic movements and quippy oneliners – are lacking in any kind of real substance.
After all, we’ve been trained to see cartoons as childish bits of frippery and live action as suitably adult, a demarcation that may seem apt but doesn’t even begin to reflect the reality on the ground.
You can add the sage, emotionally-resonant delights of Wreck-It Ralph to the arguments against this weird delineation, which includes everything from Looney Tunes to everything Pixar has ever produced, with the film possessed of depth and insight in ways that leave you truly moved by the end.
The premise itself is postmodern genius at work.
At night, after all the kids and tweeny customers have left for the day, Litwak’s Family Fun Center & Arcade comes alive as all the video game characters clock off and go about their personal lives.
The idea that supposedly pre-programmed characters have a life beyond their assigned roles is a clever idea, one that the producers of the film make merry with, ushering us into a world in which games like Fix-It Felix Jr. are populated by workers simply going about their day job.
Once the lights of the arcade go off, everyone kicks back, throws parties and socialises in the apartment block in which they live, the one which the game’s antagonist, Wreck-It Ralph spends his work days destroying only to have it magically repaired by Felix, who has a magic hammer and a charismatic way about him that everyone loves.
I mean really, REALLY, loves.
They do not, however, love the villain of the piece Ralph (John C. Reilly), and though they know Ralph is playing a part like they are, he is ostracised, never invited to the parties, and treated as an unwelcome outlier.
After 30 years of this kind of treatment, Ralph has had it and after a confrontation at the 30th anniversary party to which he was not invited, Ralph sets out to prove, the other game villains who together form Bad-Anon notwithstanding, all of whom urge him to embrace his inner unchangeable bad guy, that he is a good guy after all and deserves a medal (like the one Felix, voiced by Jack McBrayer, is awarded by Fix-It Felix Jr.‘s grateful but superficial residents).
He ends up first in a Hero’s Duty, a shoot-’em-up military strategy game in which players must vanquish the plague-like Cy-Bug (think of a mix between Starship Troopers’ antagonist swarms and Alien’s xenomorphs) which he disrupts magnificently before accidentally doing something heroic and being awarded his much-desired medal.
But as is the way of things, his actions in a game in which he doesn’t belong, lead to a cascading series of events in which he ends up in Sugar Rush, a candy-themed kart game, where he meets glitchy outcast Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) who is as sweet and sassy as can be, and who is determined to win the next kart race with a sugary creation of her own making.
Pursued into the game by Felix and Hero’s Duty’s Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun (Jane Lynch), Ralph initially does a fair bit of inadvertent wrecking, not the least of it which is releasing a Cy-Bug into the cute delights of Sugar Rush, before beginning to realise that maybe he can be a good guy after all.
Like all good hero’s journey’s Ralph’s is a long and complicated one in which he wrestles with his true self, struggles to deal with complications such as the dreaded “Out of order” being slapped onto Fix-it Felix Jr. – Ralph’s absence means the game doesn’t work as intended, rendering it unusable and carrying the very real risk its largely-ungrateful inhabitants will become refugees like so many deleted games before them – before coming to a heartwarming point where he realise he can be both himself and a good guy, his role and his actual self able to work harmoniously together.
What makes Wreck-It Ralph really stand out, apart from its brilliantly-rendered script which is full of sparkling, substantive, meaningful and funny dialogue, is the way it gives us characters who are not only fully-formed but who actually comes to mean a great deal to each other, and to the audience.
Sure this animated delight is bright, shiny and colourful, and rich with vibrant imaginative masterstrokes, but by taking the time to tell a richly-indepth story in which it’s not only Ralph struggling with a broken sense of self – both Vanellope and the real villain of the film, who can’t be talked about too much lest spoilers creep in and, ahem, wreck everything – it conveys an authentic message, which doesn’t once feel like a narrative afterthought, that resonates beautifully.
After all, who of us hasn’t, at some point or another, wrestled with who we are and whether we have real worth and value?
If you don’t think that’s something that would affect kids, then you clearly haven’t been a young kid, bullied and socially-ostracised like I was to within an inch of his existential life, who has wondered if anyone will really love and accept them for who they are.
Unlike many less well-executed animated films, which heavyhandedly slap their messages on like blobs of unwieldy cement, Wreck-It Ralph serves up a brilliantly-transformative message of unconditional love and friendship that sits happily and quite naturally alongside its glitzier, sillier and wildly fun, colourful moments.
If you have ever wanted to watch a non-Pixar film that executes perfectly on its cleverly-imaginative premise, that is boldly-drawn, full of touching character moments and dialogues, lush, vibrantly-hued worlds (the games feel so tangible and real, it’s like they’re out there somewhere waiting to be played) and which makes you feel like you matter and can find your true self and sense of life-purpose (without once being twee about it, thank the pixels), then Wreck-It Ralph is your film, an escapist joy that manages to make you feel all the feels while reassuring you that you are lovable and worth as much as you’d like to think you are.