When the arcade closes, the fun begins
While Wreck-It-Ralph is not technically based on a real video game, it is easily the best “video game movie” ever. It’s not a completely fair fight. Most of these flicks don’t have the advantage of working with Disney. The entertainment empire is so good at cranking out animated hits that its own release Brave defeated Wreck-It Ralph in the Best Animated Feature category at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars. After gestating at Disney since the 80s and going through multiple name changes for both the film and its main character, this love letter to all things gaming was released on Nov. 2, 2012. Most game movies are based on titles in which there is just enough story to get the player jumping, shooting, or fighting. Anyone trying to explain what Super Mario Bros. is about risks being accused of ingesting magic mushrooms. There’s a reason its live-action adaptation failed so miserably. Well, there are multiple reasons but that’s another story entirely.
All that said, Ralph’s inspiration is apparent. He and his co-worker Fix-It-Felix are obvious expys of Mario and Donkey Kong. Nintendo themselves figured out pretty quickly that Kong is at least as interesting as Mario, if not more so. As the trope goes, audiences really want to see Godzilla. Ralph and Felix’s punch-clock rivalry has more than a bit in common with the classic Looney Tunes episodes that featured a wolf and a sheepdog fighting until work was over. Come to think of it, wasn’t that wolf also named Ralph?
Ralph is filled with a whole series worth of easter eggs and in-jokes, but the viewer doesn’t need one million Gamerscore to get them. At its heart, it’s a tale of a man who is tired of being forced to do the same job every day, especially since it clashes so much with his actual personality. Anyone ever stuck in a job they hated, or one they kind of liked that didn’t utilize all their talents, can find much to relate to in Wreck-It Ralph.
As kids play the arcade cabinet, Ralph seems to gleefully wreck things, ruining everyone’s day with a menacing grimace. He doesn’t understand why the other characters in Fix-It Felix don’t want to hang out after work. They are needlessly unkind and Ralph doesn’t hate them, though he would be well within his rights to do so. The one denizen of his game that makes any effort to be friends with Ralph is his in-game enemy Felix, voiced by Jack McBrayer at his aw-shucksiest. John C. Reilly, who plays perhaps the best sad sack in all of Hollywood, delivers a character the audience would give a big ol’ hug if they could.
It’s in hilarious support groups (featuring some epic cameos such as Pac-Man ghost Clyde) that viewers learn how much of a gentle giant the reluctant villain is. As one might expect, most of the bad guys have no idea where Ralph is coming from. He makes the fateful decision to leave Fix-It Felix and learn what it means to be a gaming hero.
This is one of the rare cases in which decades in development hell actually helped the project. Obviously, the animation is better, allowing lots of opportunities to lampoon the days when it wasn’t. Several characters are depicted with the herky-jerky animation styles of the early-to-mid 80s. There’s a huge contrast between the largely simple arcade efforts Ralph is based on and titles such as the Halo -adjacent Hero’s Duty. It’s there that Ralph and Felix meet eternal scene-stealer Jane Lynch as Sgt. Calhoun, a hero with the “most tragic” backstory of having her fiance killed by cybernetic bugs on her wedding day. She eventually falls in love with Felix and they adopt a bunch of misplaced arcade orphans. How did that family not get their own show, Disney?
The aspiring hero meets his kindred spirit inside a kart racer called Sugar Rush. Sarah Silverman is perfectly cast as the sardonic but adorable Vanellope von Schweetz. She too is treated like an outcast in her game because she “glitches,” causing her to teleport unpredictably. Silverman takes a character that could easily have been one-note and annoying and finds the heart within her. In classic Disney fashion, Vanellope is eventually revealed to be an amnesiac princess. It’s the chemistry between Silverman and Reilly that elevates the material to something more. Having never encountered Ralph in his own element, Vanellope is able to see him as he truly is: strong, goofy and trapped in a world of cardboard wherever he goes.
These two misfits use their quirky personalities and powers to save their entire universe, which has been endangered by Ralph’s and other characters’ game-hopping. Ralph is able to return to an arcade cabinet that now understands that while it’s Felix’s name on the cabinet, there is no game without Ralph.
Of course, there was an actual retail video game based on the movie, but sadly it drew mostly negative reviews. Wreck-It-Ralph is so authentic its game followed the industry tradition of most licensed games being shovelware.
While you don’t need a wealth of gaming knowledge to enjoy the movie, there are some great Easter eggs. King Candy’s combination for the safe in which he keeps the Sugar Rush secrets is the famous “Konami” code from Gradius and numerous other games. The wall of Game Central Station is covered in eggs, including a quote that reads All Your Base Are Belong to Us, the poorly translated English from the shooter Zero Wing that was one of the hobby’s first huge in-jokes.
Wreck-It-Ralph treats viewers to a villain who is really a hero, a princess who would much rather be a street racer, and lessons in teamwork that apply to both Call of Duty sessions and real life.