A Walt Disney Production: “Wreck-It Ralph”

One of the main reasons I started this project late last year was to pass the months until Ralph Breaks the Internet came out. A year seemed like an eternity to wait to see this world and characters again, and it had become even more frustrating after the release date was pushed back by eight months. At the time of the original film’s release, it was hailed for its originality and its critical and financial success may have been what cemented Disney’s Revival era, which has now been going for nearly a decade. And with a sequel soon to be hitting theaters, it’s finally come time for me to examine how it came to be (in an even longer process than Emperor’s New Groove or Dinosaur) and what made it resonate with audiences back in 2012.

Background

Fittingly, the broader concept of an animated film led by a video game character dates back closer to the advent of the medium. It went through a different iteration each time it was pitched at Disney: High Score in the late 1980s, Joe Jump in the 90s, and Reboot Ralph in the mid-2000s. None of the older versions were green-lit, as Disney higher-ups felt that the lead character didn’t have any defining qualities that would grab audiences. Skip ahead to about ten or so years ago, and Futurama and The Simpsons veteran Rich Moore was brought in to Disney Animation by John “Tactile in a Weird Way” Lasseter, who asked him to consider a concept surrounding the world of video games for his first feature. Moore was initially resistant to the idea, unsure how a movie about characters with prewritten programming to determine their actions could be made interesting. That issue, however, wound up working into the plot perfectly when he had the idea for a lead character who tried to go against his programming and shape his own life. And so, after roughly twenty years on the shelf, the staff of Walt Disney Animation Studios finally had a video game movie in development.

The first draft of what would become Wreck-It Ralph had Fix-It Felix, Jr. as the main protagonist. His game’s programming was approached as a sort of “family business” that Felix didn’t want to take his father’s place in, and so set out to prove that he could forge his own path and stand up to his family. Helping to fill out Felix’s world was the villain “Wendell Grubble,” a giant sort of troll-like creature who spoke in grunts and frequently threw garbage at Felix. After a few months of development, the production staff realized that the antagonist of a video game would be a far more interesting character to follow — his programming would be far less kind to him, and in the world they were creating, it would be a crucial but largely thankless job. So Wendell became Ralph, and his character started to become more rounded out, though his design was still a bit more similar to Donkey Kong than to the Wreck-It Ralph we know.

At first, Ralph becoming the lead didn’t diminish Felix’s role that much. Much of the second act involved the two together on their journey throughout the arcade, and they would form a trio with Vanellope von Schweetz later on in the film. Ultimately, though, the friendship formed between Ralph and Vanellope on their own was found to be more compelling, and it made way for a subplot in which Felix and Sergeant Calhoun encountered their own perils in pursuit of Ralph.

Artistically, the film took inspiration from a wide range of sources to create the different settings emulating video games from different eras — Fix-It Felix, Jr., a more classic-style 8-bit game from the days of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, was designed with a heavy focus on squares, and none of the incidental characters in the game were allowed to move diagonally (Ralph and Felix being the exceptions, since the audience would have to follow and feel for them for an entire movie). Hero’s Duty, a modern first-person shooter in the vein of Call of Duty and Halo, switched to a much more muted color scheme with a chaotic atmosphere influenced by classic action and war movies, though the violence is understandably pared down. Perhaps the most unique of the three, the world of Sugar Rush was modeled after the work of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí (concept artist Lorelay Bove had grown up in Spain) for the streets and buildings, as well as the studio’s own classic hand-drawn style for the animation itself.

In the end, the project’s delays turned out to work in its favor, as the timeframe for its development allowed the staff to pay homage to different eras and genres of video games in ways that they couldn’t possibly have done in the ’80s.

Positives

Although the premise of Wreck-It Ralph is derivative of films like Toy Story, the worlds it creates between and within the arcade games are remarkably inventive. Pretty much every original character design is creative while also reminiscent of classic video games — if you were to see Felix, Ralph, Calhoun, and Vanellope removed from the context of the full story, you could easily guess what kind of game each character was meant to call back to. All of the games have cleverly crafted environments beyond just what the player would see on the screen, though they’re still somewhat limited based on the type of games they are: the Niceland apartment building in Fix-It Felix has actual rooms inside it that the player would never see, but a lot of the surrounding environment is empty due to the fact that early video games wouldn’t have included many different locations, normally leaving it at just one. The first-person shooter format of Hero’s Duty allows for more exploring on the player’s part, so that setting is more expansive, and the racetrack in Sugar Rush covers a good amount of creative landscapes, making it the most filled out of all the games we see in the film. It’s vast and full of visually interesting sugary surroundings (on an unrelated note, I get a weird craving for chocolate whenever I watch this movie). As for the characters within the arcade, the rules set up for them are simple, yet ingenious. There’s a clever method of travel between games in the form of a sort of subway system through the cords plugged into a power strip, which acts as a hub connecting all of the game cabinets. The writers didn’t have to create a complicated system under which this universe ran, they just took advantage of the premise and used different elements that we’re already familiar with in new ways that raised the stakes for the central and personal conflicts.

Rich Moore’s directing background is especially apparent in the film’s humor. Even some of the most minor characters get at least one good comedic moment, and the Futurama and Simpsons style of humor makes for some of the funniest visual gags and character interactions in the Disney canon. This includes references to pre-existing video games, but those are still funny whether or not you’re familiar with the specific games and characters. It helps if you are, but the jokes don’t rely on it.

The contrast between the original games created for the film is striking and allows for a lot of great comedy and dynamics between characters from wildly different settings. Both Ralph and Felix get a sort of whiplash from entering Hero’s Duty after living in a nice and largely nonthreatening environment for the last thirty years, and Felix’s budding romance with Calhoun is made more interesting because of their different perspectives. They’re brought together not because they find a lot of things they have in common, but because of the traits that they admire about each other; they manage to somewhat change each other’s points of view and find a middle ground between the naïve optimism and brooding pessimism that come from the conventions of their respective game genres.

Ralph’s friendship with Vanellope develops mostly for opposite reasons. Both are outcasts, and bond over their shared experiences and frustrations. Where Vanellope is a child bullied outwardly (and sometimes violently) by other children and adults who claim to have her best interests at heart, Ralph is treated in a similar fashion by adults who mistreat him mainly by being polite to his face but going out of their way to exclude and ignore him, though it sometimes turns to verbal put-downs. The similarities between the side characters show how all too often, bullying tendencies don’t vanish with age. Vanellope can’t leave her game because she’s a glitch, and Ralph has never had any interest or intention to visit it due to its saccharine cutesiness, so neither one has any preconceptions about the other’s role in their social sphere. This allows them to make a connection based solely on who they are as individuals, with the prejudices against them rarely factored into their dynamic. It makes for an endearing sort of found family relationship, and the emotional climax hits harder because Vanellope saying that Ralph “really [is] a bad guy” isn’t an assumption — it comes after she’s actually gotten to know him as a person. And it follows Ralph having had to destroy the go-kart they made together earlier, that represented the first time anyone has been on Vanellope’s side. He’s just done the thing he’s already hated for, but at this point it stops being monotonous for him and becomes fully heartbreaking.

The plot setup and characterization are organic and so tightly written it could cut off the circulation in your finger. In a clever homage to the “Sonic the Hedgehog” cartoon from the early ’90s, Sonic himself appears in a PSA about traveling safely from game to game, since a character dying outside of their own game is the only way for them to die permanently. Immediately following this, the result of a game being unplugged is shown through a brief scene that shows characters from Q*bert having become homeless and forced to live in Game Central Station. Not only does this immediately introduce the stakes for the residents of Niceland when Ralph leaves the game, rendering it devoid of conflict or objective, as well as for all of the characters when the cybugs are let loose from Hero’s Duty, but it also serves as Ralph’s “save the cat” moment when he gives the Q*bert creatures a cherry from Pac-Man, and explains how Q*bert recognizes Ralph and is able to tell Felix where he’s gone, starting Felix off on his own subplot and character arc.

Something I love to see in movies and TV shows, especially those targeted at younger audiences, is when an aspect of a given character can be easily understood without being stated outright. Within minutes of their introductions, you understand that although Felix tries to be nice and avoid conflict, he doesn’t understand how easy he has it compared to people like Ralph. Maybe him being a bigger part of Ralph’s journey would have been interesting, but it serves his character better to experience Ralph’s treatment for himself. You understand that Vanellope’s sharp tongue is a defense mechanism developed after years of being bullied and ostracized. Similarly, Calhoun avoids personal relationships because of the backstory she was given by the game developers (implying that she was made to suffer for something that didn’t even really happen), but makes the decision in the end to accept people into her life and try to be happy. Ralph is rightfully unhappy with his own situation, but is unable to change his role in his game and by proxy, the society formed in the arcade. Both of the latter characters make the decision not to be defined by what they don’t like about their lives and try to find happiness through personal connection. None of the main characters (except for Ralph, but it’s justified in his case) verbally reference where they started or state what they’ve learned, but the lessons are still clearly present.

Recent animated Disney films have been both praised and criticized for their habit of revealing a twist villain in the third act, but Wreck-It Ralph had a far better execution of the concept. I wouldn’t exactly say it was the first of the modern Disney films to do this trope, since Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia all handle it in the form of the villain being someone previously thought to be one of the good guys, and Wreck-It Ralph does it by revealing surprising yet crucial information about the character we already know to be the antagonist. We know that King Candy doesn’t want Vanellope to be a racer, and that he is likely hiding something from Ralph when he says the reason is to protect Vanellope, but his reveal as Turbo is a perfect turn that makes him even more threatening. Up to this point, he’s more of a comedic character and just comes off as a jerk from Ralph and Vanellope’s perspective, but throughout the film, his façade gradually cracks to reveal his more insidious motives. I’ve heard people say the twist is predictable, but I personally didn’t see it coming the first time I saw it (granted, I was fourteen and not that well-versed in cinematic structure). Whether or not it’s obvious, however, the questions surrounding his motives are present the entire time, the exposition of Turbo’s story (which is worked in naturally; it makes sense that Calhoun wouldn’t have heard of him and would ask) hints that he’ll come back at some point, and the final reveal answers all the questions the audience was left asking about both his personas.

Chekhov left a good amount of his things scattered around this movie’s script; every rule and plot point set up in the first and second acts comes together brilliantly in the third, sometimes in ways you might not have expected. When Ralph returns to his own game to find that it’s been abandoned for fear of being unplugged, he’s forced to question what he actually wanted this entire time. It’s almost understated, shown through him giving a brief look at the two medals he’s collected: one he simply took for himself, representing the status quo of what the people around him expect a hero to be, the other representing admiration that he’s earned from helping someone else who was sidelined by the same societal conventions he wanted to fit into. He rejects the former, and both the emotional decision and the physical act of throwing away the first medal give him the knowledge and means to solve the problems he’s inadvertently created. In the climax, Ralph and Vanellope use the very abilities that they’ve been marginalized for to save themselves each other in a beautiful culmination of the bond they’ve formed (and a possible callback to Dumbo), and Turbo’s obsession with power leads to his destruction. In the conclusion, Vanellope’s “disability,” as it were, doesn’t go away, but becomes a source of pride, and Ralph’s role in his game doesn’t change, but he makes the effort to be happy both within it and outside of it, even without getting what he thought he wanted at the beginning, and presumably without the larger stigma of bad guys disappearing. Calhoun does the same, and her trauma isn’t erased in the process, nor is the core of her personality altered. It’s a unique lesson in Disney’s animated canon: there are some aspects of life that can’t be changed. The solution, then, is to identify what you can control and try to improve your own life in areas where it’s within your power. It elaborates on the philosophy that “life is what you make it,” acknowledging that this may not always be the case, but that doesn’t mean you should resign yourself to being unhappy

Negatives

In the production staff’s quest to pay tribute to modern video games, they may have included some more questionable aspects of them in ways that don’t come off as critical and seem to be more the fault of the movie itself. Though Sergeant Calhoun is an interesting character, her design is, simply put, pretty sexist. She’s described in the Blu-ray bonus features as having “ideal measurements,” which apparently translates to a tiny waist and large chest. Granted, they also made a point to design the male characters in Hero’s Duty with broad shoulders and sharp facial features, but Calhoun is far more prominent in the story, and the only things that really stand out about her design are her costume and undercut. That added to a line in which she addresses her fellow (male) soldiers as “ladies” in a derogatory manner raises questions about whether this was intentional to show how video games generally represent women, or if the writers and designers just weren’t really thinking past the constraints of designing and writing a female protagonist in mainstream Western animation.

There also isn’t a whole lot of development in the relationship between her and Felix. It’s approached from an interesting angle, but it doesn’t get enough focus to be fully investing, and almost comes off like the writers just needed something for these two characters to do while Ralph and Vanellope stayed in the forefront.

Other than the issues regarding Calhoun, there’s only one other major problem I had with Wreck-It Ralph, and it has nothing to do with the story or look of the film. It’s something that confused a lot of audiences, including myself, ever since its release in 2012: the inclusion of Rihanna’s “Shut Up and Drive” in the montage where Ralph helps Vanellope learn to drive a real go-kart. Yes, the imagery in the song is about cars, but there’s a reason my sisters and I weren’t allowed to listen to it when it came out, and that’s because it’s very obviously about sex. I knew this when I was ten, and at twenty I feel like I shouldn’t even have to explain this. It doesn’t ruin the movie or even really the scene, but it was a bizarre (and slightly uncomfortable) choice for the soundtrack.

Final Thoughts

From the perspective of an aspiring screenwriter, Wreck-It Ralph sets a high bar. All of the main characters are engaging and develop wonderfully over the course of the film. Their personalities work off each other in ways that can be hilarious or endearing. Very little of it feels like a relic of the early 2010s and, having been released at a time when Disney’s animated films were getting progressively funnier, its comedy is some of the best of the past few decades. Its premise is inventive, its setting beyond clever, and its plot almost perfectly structured. With just under two months until Ralph Breaks the Internet is released, revisiting this one makes me anxious for the sequel in both senses of the word. I’m looking forward to seeing more of these characters and another world that could be as creative as the one already established — I only hope that those elements as they appeared in the first film will have justice done to them. But even if the new film is a drop in quality, I’ll still hold its predecessor in high regard.

Originally published at miseensense.wordpress.com on September 30, 2018.

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Film/TV critic, essayist, and screenwriter. Hollins University class of 2020 current MFA student.

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Mary McKeon

Mary McKeon

Film/TV critic, essayist, and screenwriter. Hollins University class of 2020 current MFA student.

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