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Entries in Wreck-It-Ralph [2012] (1)

Sunday
Nov042012

Wreck-It-Ralph (2012)

Arcade Fire Sale

One of my biggest disappointments this year was discreetly checking my phone at Wreck-It-Ralph's forty-five-minute mark and realizing that A) it should have ended twenty minutes earlier, and B) it was only half over. That's unfortunate, because I'd really been looking forward to Disney's CGI love letter to classic video games, a film that is is clever, gorgeous, and totally dead inside.

The impressive and oddly moving trailer promised to tell the story of a 1980s coin-op villain (the titular Ralph, voiced by John C. Reilly) who grows dissatisfied with his lot in life and seeks a greater destiny in other games. From the looks of things, the Mouse House kept up the stellar 3D animation streak it began with Tangled, and didn't cheap-out on licensing costs--populating the movie with legends and oddities from the 8-bit hall of fame. And the new avatars looked to have been created with a true fan's eye for the little details that hardcore gamers would appreciate.

Sadly, the homages didn't stop at character design. Co-writers Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee's screenplay is an uninspired patchwork of gaming in-jokes and plot points recycled from better animated movies. From the behind-the-scenes look at the work-a-day lives of fantastical creatures (Monsters, Inc.); to the everything's-at-stake race through bizarre terrain (The Phantom Menace, but less obviously and more accurately, Speed Racer*); to the journey of a proud oaf who must ultimately defeat a big-headed tyrant king and, in the process, help an "ugly" princess discover her inner beauty (Shrek); and the climactic moment of sacrifice where the misunderstood hero must blow himself up to save the world (The Iron Giant), there's not a moment in Wreck-It-Ralph that doesn't feel blatantly co-opted.

I realize I'm screaming into the wind here. The movie debuted to record-breaking box office numbers, and reaction from the geek community has been overwhelmingly positive. I almost wrote "shockingly positive", but there's little surprise, really, in the film's success. Wreck-It-Ralph is a big, lazy, nostalgia-bomb designed to appeal not just to kid audiences, but also to the developmentally arrested adults who've kept the kitsch industry alive through sales of ironic t-shirts and Nintendo-console-style, novelty lunch boxes. As much as they may rail against the idea that they are a legitimate, mainstream demographic--and not disparate, impossible-to-pin-down renegades--the "nerd/geek" jig is up. And it's time for industry to either stop catering to these sad weirdos or put some real effort into catering to them.

For example, a character using the Konami Code to unlock a digital chest is not funny. It's a Pavlovian whistle meant to elicit loud, obnoxious laughter from the ten people in the theatre who want to let eeeeeveryone else know that they get the "joke". In the last couple years, geek-targeted movies have crossed a dangerous threshold into Romantic Comedy and Action Shoot-'Em-Up territory. One no longer needs to be original, daring, or genuinely imaginative to capture this crowd; they simply need to make the right references and evoke a chocolate-milk-and-Cheetos feeling in the trailer. Q-Bert has become the basement-dweller's Katherine Heigl and Jason Statham.

Speaking of celebrities, I'm sure director Rich Moore was thrilled to work with such comedy luminaries as Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, and Jack McBrayer, but for someone intimately familiar with those actors' CVs, I found all of the voices in Wreck-It-Ralph distracting and annoying. Lynch, in particular, is problematic because she plays a hard-as-nails, alien-killing squad commander who's also supposed to be a sexy, chick-with-guns-and-issues. She nails the former by phoning in a variant on her Sue Sylvester character from Glee. But when called upon to melt reluctantly at the bumpkin-ish charms of her wacky sidekick, Fix-It-Felix Jr. (McBrayer), she still sounds like a bitter, chain-smoking old lady. If that was the joke, it was poorly executed.

It might have helped if the actors had been called upon to do actual voice work instead of just show up and play themselves. With the exception of the consistently wonderful Alan Tudyk (as the deceptively kooky King Candy), the rest of the main cast are all too recognizable. The first of many arguments between Ralph and Vanellope (the racecar-obsessed pixie he meets in a game called Sugar Rush) felt like one of those pre-coming-attractions featurettes where footage of Sarah Silverman recording her lines plays next to scenes from the movie. I watched most of Wreck-It-Ralph with several such mental split-screens, unable to look at Fix-It-Felix Jr., say, and not think of "Kenneth" from 30 Rock.

I started this review by praising Wreck-It-Ralph's looks and cleverness. Visually, the film is a masterpiece. But what do you expect for $165 million? As for sly humor, the script has it in spades--from an arcade surge protector serving as the characters' Grand Central Station to an inspired use of the Pac-Man maze and big ideas about what a "glitch" means in the world of video games, it's clear that the filmmakers are no strangers to pop-culture homework and puns.

None of this adds up to a compelling story, though, and I was surprised at the movie's limited narrative scope. Ralph only visits two games outside his own; in a universe populated by literally thousands of variations on dozens of genres over three decades, this is a crime equivalent to setting eighty percent of Star Wars on Tatooine. Were Sugar Rush--or the things that happen there--inherently interesting, this wouldn't be a major complaint.

I really wanted to take Wreck-It-Ralph seriously, but it wouldn't let me. Despite its apparent financial success, this is a big step backwards for Disney. Time will tell if their homegrown 3D brand will mature into the kind of capable, sophisticated storytelling juggernaut that uncle Pixar is, or if they'll succumb to the bad influence of that recently adopted, nose-picking redhead, Lucasfilm, and continue playing to the back of the house.

*Though both films are technically live-action, I think there's enough CGI at work in each to label them as "animated".