05 November 2012

DISNEY ANIMATION: S-U-G-A-R, JUMP INTO YOUR RACING CAR

The regular readers in the crowd know that I ordinarily spend a disastrously large number of words reviewing films in the Disney animated features canon, of which the new Wreck-It Ralph is the 52nd; and I certainly expect to do just that when the film comes out on Blu-Ray, and I have a chance to live with it for a while. In the meantime, though, we're going to shoot for a nice, short, normal-sized review, because to be perfectly honest, Wreck-It Ralph isn't living in my memory quite boldly enough to feel like I can do much more; certainly, of the two films that Disney has seen fit to pair together, there's more visual ingenuity and emotional resonance in the seven minutes of Paperman than in the whole feature that follows it, at least to these eyes - the uncommon number of "best animated film of the year!" reviews that have latched onto Wreck-It Ralph is quite undeniable, even as it's also sort of inexplicable.

Not that the film isn't delightful; it assuredly is that. And it looks nice, though not as "my God, I didn't know we could do that now" as the best moments in Tangled, nor anything in sister studio Pixar's recent output (for Wreck-It Ralph is CG, not traditional-style, given that the company's brief dalliance with thus returning to their roots seems to have fully extinguished itself with the nonperformance of Winnie the Pooh). But it's got fun design and bright colors and an overwhelming sense of playfulness that serves it well: given how obviously it's aiming for the hearts and minds of children, with its soft, amusing characters, extravagantly familiar storyline and moral, and stunning dependence on scatological humor, it could sure as hell do a worse job of it. It's a good, solid movie, all around; and Jesus, does it ever not feel like a Disney picture. Not since Chicken Little in 2005, the studio's first fully-rendered CG-animated movie,* has any film in the Disney canon been so desperate to mimic another studio's output: in that case it was DreamWorks, in this case Pixar, and the least we can say for Wreck-It Ralph is that's it's by no means the worst Pixar knock-off of the past several years. But Disney already owns Pixar, and oughtn't be in the business of copying it; and I pray we never get to the point where the two studios become virtually impossible to distinguish from each other.

These are my issues, though, and not the movie's. Let us then be adults and not judge Wreck-It Ralph for the things it is not (e.g. The Little Mermaid), and judge it rather for what it is.

And what it is has been not unfairly described as "Toy Story with video games", though I think this focuses on the wrong elements of the movie. For the presence of cameos by video game characters of old, while satisfying to thus of us in the right age range to have first-hand experience of the games in question (I'd cautiously set that age range as about 27-40), is strictly window dressing, used more to shore up the reality of the film's universe than actually engage with it in a meaningful way - there are no green army men or Mr. Potato Head or Slinky Dog analogues here, and the only beloved video game stars whose presence is narratively meaningful and irreplaceable are Q*bert and the Tapper bartender, if indeed Tapper actually counts as a beloved video game.

What matters is, in fact, a relatively stock "misunderstood outcast wants to have friends" story, jazzed up considerably by the expansive worlds it gets to take place in, given its particular conceptual hook, which is that the characters of arcade games are self-aware, and that the villain of a 1982 machine called Fix-It Felix Jr., a burly gent in overalls with fists the size of small cars named Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), has gotten tired of being the villain in his universe, always treated with contempt by the rest of the characters day after day for decades. The final straw comes when, on the 30th anniversary of the game's installation, the NPCs whom the player has to rescue from Ralph's wrecking throw a party for the game's hero, Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer), without either inviting Ralph along, or tolerating him in even the smallest degree after he stumbles upon their celebration.

Embittered, Ralph decides to prove that he can be a hero by winning a medal in another game - for the even better part of the conceptual hook is that the characters can travel, via power cords, to the other games in the arcade - and thus prove to himself that he doesn't have to be just a crude, destructive bad guy. This takes him to a hectic, violent first-person shooter called Hero's Duty, where he does indeed manage to acquire hero's medal; but in the process, he awakens that game's mindless insectoid villains, and takes one with him to a candy-themed racing game called Sugar Rush, and it is here where most of the film's action takes place, as Ralph gets his medal snatched by a glitchy character named Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), sending him on a chase to find her, and in the process uncover the secret of what has happened to Sugar Rush, a seemingly benevolent dictatorship ruled by King Candy (Alan Tudyk), hiding a dark history. Meanwhile, Fix-It Felix, honor-bound to stop Ralph's messes, has journeyed to Sugar Rush along with Hero's Duty star Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), hoping to keep the bug Ralph brought along from destroying this and every other game on the circuit. And all of this must be accomplished in one night, for if the arcade's owner, Mr. Litwak (Ed O'Neill), finds that both Fix-It Felix Jr. and Sugar Rush have gone wonky, he'll pull the plug, thus damning the characters inside to a gameless existence.

I will first say, in my crabby fashion, that there are a lot of theoretical holes in the movie's concept, including one hidden inside that last plot point: if these characters are saved as digital data within the game machine that houses them, how is it a world-ending death sentence for their game to be turned off? Are we to believe that in 30 years, that Fix-It Felix Jr. machine has really never once lost power? Nitpicking, of course, and not even a nitpick that bothered me all that much, while watching the movie or now; it was just a convenient example at hand of something that does get to be rather annoying in Wreck-It Ralph, which is that the movie spends a lot of effort to set up the rules by which it works, only they don't seem to be terribly logical or consistent or intuitive, though at the same time it's not really important: the rules exist mostly to set up a ticking clock that doesn't make things all that intense, and to permit Ralph to visit three wildly different locations on his journey.

And now we get to the part where I stop sniping: for Wreck-It Ralph is an exquisitely-designed movie. We spend most of our time in Sugar Rush, and accordingly, it is the most complicated and detailed of them, with colors from all over the spectrum plastered everywhere, visual gags tucked in at every corner, and every sort of candy you can think of used in some charmingly off-kilter way. But the worlds of Hero's Duty and Fix-It Felix aren't too shabby themselves, with Fix-It Felix especially capturing the minimalist, black-background world of early-'80s video games, and suggesting what such a world would look like in three dimensions but not especially fleshed-out with details that wouldn't have been there, with the black pall over all of it casting a certain gloomy but home aura over the setting.

The character designs are similar, capturing multiple design principals from across generations of game designers and somehow making them all fit - I remain slightly disappointed that the 8-bit characters and 16-bit characters don't look at all 8-bit and 16-bit, but instead just look like every other basically realistic CGI cartoon character in wide-release animated movies, but I'll concede that the change certainly makes the movie less challenging, in good and bad ways - bad because, after all, being challenged by cinema is always worthwhile, and good because Wreck-It Ralph was not made for hardcore animation buffs, but for children and families. And a unified world makes more sense for that audience than something more conceptually rigorous but therefore grotesque. Besides, there are still the shots from outside the games looking in, that find fun ways to treat the characters in all their low-res glory. In fact, the only point of character design or animation that I really find fault with is that, for the most part, minor characters are presented at a period-appropriate reduced framerate, while the main characters, even those from the same game, movie at a fluid 24 frames per second. It's one thing to have side characters jerking about like sprites in a 30-year-old arcade game, but the inconsistency is jarring, one more point where the filmmakers don't seem to be genuinely committed to their concept on an intellectual level, but only using it as an excuse for storytelling.

(Oh, and I also find considerable fault with making King Candy look so much like the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, and pushing Tudyk to use a voice that sounds so much like Ed Wynn's: it's far too obvious to be accidental, but there is no obvious reason for it whatsoever, and it distracted the hell out of me every time he popped up).

And fine storytelling it is: funny (though as mentioned, over-reliant on lazy gross-out humor), briskly-paced, it navigates the switch from character-driven narrative to an action-driven third act (the surest sign that the filmmakers were copying out of the Pixar playbook) with enough grace that it's not obvious that they did so, and Ralph himself is a solid, likeable protagonist, with Reilly giving a terrific vocal performance, one of the best in any animated film for quite a while: Ralph is a pretty terrific working-class sad-sack of the kind the actor has been specialising in for a long time now, so it's fitting that he should be able to imbue the character with so much sensitive, resentment, and earnestness.

I'll admit it: I went in expecting not to like it, and I came out liking it. So that's a sign, all by itself, that the film works. Whether it works a whole lot, whether it does anything that's really, truly new or innovative, that's a bit of a different question, and one that doesn't really need to be asked. Wreck-It Ralph has no apparent goal other than being the biggest, most colorful film it can be, with a warm and fuzzy message that isn't aiming to be sophisticated, and it does what it sets out to do. Personally speaking, I'm looking for more enchantment and less competent family adventure filmmaking from the Disney brand name, but hell, better this then a lot of more "traditional" films that have come from that studio over the years.

7/10

See? Not even 2000 words on the video game cartoon. So um, not exactly "short" or "normal-sized" at all, but we do take Disney very seriously around these parts...

10 comments:

Andy said...

I just had this weird idea that Disney would make a game based on this movie, which then becomes more popular than the movie and spawns several sequels, then they decide to make a Movie Based on the Popular Video Game Series Wreck-It Ralph.

I've seen others complain about the non-8-bitness of some of the characters but your reasoning for Disney doing that makes sense, and I can't imagine many of the kids under 10 even know what a NES or Genesis even is.

Tim said...

I would be happy to take credit for the reasoning, but I actually picked it up while reading one or another of the making-of articles I checked out before writing: apparently in an early stage of development, the characters were always seen in 8-bit, and the animators felt this made Ralph hard to sympathise with.

Jeremy said...

I REALLY liked Wreck-It Ralph! So many dominos set up, and I feel it was all worth it. You think all the stuff in Hero's Duty was just fun sight gags(bug turn into anything it eats, the big light the bugs are attached to, etc), but the way it all builds up in the climax is brilliant! I teared up a few times, not gonna lie. That said, I was disappointed with the direction the story went. When King Candy told Ralph about the dilemma with glitches and the hard decisions he had to make, I had no idea where the movie was gonna go. Here's a morally complex idea, the hard center of what's been a sweet treat. Things just got very interesting!

Buuuut it was all a lie and King Candy is a big bad guy and happy smiles for everybody at the end, whee. And it works(the last 20 minutes are the best section of the film, with it's big racing/action set pieces and all the sub-plots and ideas finally coming to a head), but I do feel it went in a less interesting direction. I feel like there was a level the movie couldn't get pass, so it used a cheat code to skip the final stage. It's a 8/10, when it possibly could have been a 9/10. I think Pixar probably would have went all in and did something with that.

But its definitely better than Brave, and the best animated film I've seen all year.

Tim said...

On the contrary, I though the foreshadowing in Hero's Duty was very structurally sound writing. My reference to sight gags was strictly in terms of Sugar Rush.

But beyond that, I had mostly the same reaction as you did to King Candy's reveal: I knew going in that he was The Villain, but I did not know why, and so in the middle when it seems to be raising all those hard questions, I found myself wondering how they'd find a way to make such a complex situation as easy as "people we like vs. people we don't". And, well, they did.

Your mention of Brave reminds me that we've basically had, this year, Pixar making a Disney film, and Disney making a Pixar film. I think Disney did a better job, but Brave is still more interesting to me despite/because of its flaws, and way the hell more pretty.

My own favorite animated feature of 2012 remains, comfortably, ParaNorman, but that is of course neither here nor there.

Andrew Testerman said...

I think my feelings about Wreck-It Ralph are similar to yours, in that I liked it quite a bit, but I'm totally unsure of how it "fits" with the rest of the Disney Animated Features canon. The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Winnie the Pooh all feel part of the Disney narrative, but Wreck-It Ralph doesn't quite match the rest, like Bolt or Lilo & Stitch. I dunno, Disney films and the Present Day are strange bedfellows to me.

Liked it for what it was, though; I was afraid it was going to be one big Pander To All Of The Gamers!-fest, but it eventually settled in and acted like a proper film. Also, the main arcade-goer was a young girl, so kudos to Disney for that.

David Greenwood said...

My wife and I left Wreck-it Ralph feeling pretty much the same, which is quite an unusual occurrence.

Frankly, Disney and Pixar are beginning to bleed together into one lesser company. I'm growing really tired of Lasseter's tics: the third act action setpiece, the obligatory sad moments with a character looking downcast as the violin swells and we abruptly stop enjoying ourselves for a moment of dignified solemnity, and the general feeling that I've seen all of this one too many times.

The parts of Wreck-it Ralph that weren't Toy Story 3 were actually pretty fun, and I wish the film had just been content to be a more lighthearted adventure-comedy. Why everything has to go for the aforementioned solemnity is beyond me.

I counted at least three major plot threads in this movie, at least one of which could easily have been jettisoned. Ralph's struggle for acceptance by the NPCs was one. Vanellope's struggle for acceptance by the other racers was another (and resonated thematically rather well). King Candy and all of that was yet another, and really irritating. Finally the Hero's Duty bug problem, and the attendant mortal peril. That's an awful lot of plot for one movie, dontchathink?

Speaking of mortal peril, did anyone find it as irritating as I did the way that the movie hamfistedly told us that characters won't regenerate if they die in another game? More to the point, when did that ever become a relevant issue?

It's just symptomatic of everything in this movie being way too pumped up, emotional, and life-or-death for it's own good. I'm thinking that if WiR had aimed for Wallace and Gromit level tension, it would have worked much better than aiming for Toy Story, and been a hell of a lot more fun.

And incidentally, Tapper is my favorite arcade cabinet game of all time, so I squeebled quite loudly during that scene. ^_____^

The.Watcher said...

Speaking on your pointing out of some of the holes in logic: there are most probably many arcade cabinets made of the same game, yes? So, does each and every one of them contain a parallel dimension with all those characters?

So... is Ralph still just a villain in the other thousands of cabinets?

I realize this is nitpicking to an extreme, but these kind of details will most likely eat at me. They already do, and I haven't even seen it.

Rob Niven said...

I'm glad to hear that you liked the movie. The movie certainly wasn't without its problems but I found that overall it had more than enough heart to sort of gloss over those rough patches.

I also agreed with you about how un-Disney it felt, sort of. I remember thinking to myself during the movie. "You know, this really doesn't feel like a Disney movie." I do feel like they kind of returned to their roots with Vanellope's identity as a princess but even then it felt a bit tacked on.

Regardless of how "Disney" WIR was I do have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. My girlfriend, who I experience these movies in a more pure (see "less critical") light than me absolutely loved it. She was moved by a lot of the characters and surprised by at least one plot reveal.

Also, I'm surprised no one has mentioned what kind of place this positive movie puts Disney in. This makes, to my eye, the fourth success they've had in a row. (Talking critical success here, we all know that Winnie was a bomb financially.) I'm not saying we're in some sort of "Second Renaissance" or anything but I haven't left the movies disappointed with a WDAS picture in the last four years which isn't something I could've said for the four prior to it.

Ambi Valent said...

What I liked about the movie is that none of the characters is too perfect. Ralph has a soft heart but also lies and cheats on his quest to get respect. Felix is brave and heroic even outside his game but hasn't spent any thought on those less lucky, as he finds out in the movie. And Vanellope is bratty at times and sweet at others and has lovably small goals. Only Calhoun is sorta perfect, but her no-nonsense, no-surrender character wouldn't be believable if she didn't do everything possible to evacuate the civilians out of Sugar Rush in the end. I've seen things done much worse in many movies that took themselves more seriously.

As for things being "too Disney" or "copying Pixar"... I think just having a positive message doesn't make a movie bad, but I think Disney's real error was the outdated recipes it used again and again. I think the movie did well catching what was good in older Disney movies as well as in Pixar ones, while in the end going its own way. Look at Ghibli movies, and you'll find Hayao Miyazaki following recipes as well when he tries to put some elements in almost every one of his movies.

It remains to be seen what Disney does next. They already had tried some new ways from time to time, but even though some (including me) liked them, they returned to their old recipes afterwards. Let's hope "Wreck-It Ralph" is not followed by endless copies, but by movies just as willing to try new things when the old ones no longer work.

Not Fenimore said...

I agree with the *general* point of not really thinking their scenario through, but the *specific* point about Vanellope's impending powerless doom I wasn't worried about so much: I just read it as "and it will never be turned back on again", which seems a perfectly threatening fate without any real need to argue over whether the characters suffer a discontinuity when the power goes off &c &c.

Mostly I was worried about what is going to happen when they try to attach this to Kingdom Hearts. That's a terrifying piece of metafiction just waiting for David Lynch to be brought on as consultant.