Toy Story for video games! Who Framed Roger Rabbit for the Nintendo generation! Disney's Wreck-It Ralph, a movie about the inner lives of arcade characters, invites some pretty weighty comparisons and it's perhaps understandable that it doesn't quite live up to its promise. It does, however, offer your only chance to see Q*Bert on the big screen.
Our titular hero, voiced by John C. Reilly, is the hulking Donkey Kong-style villain of a 30-year-old arcade game by the name of Fix-It Felix Jr. Every time somebody inserts a quarter, Ralph stomps his way up the side of an apartment block, smashing windows as he goes. Then Felix springs into action, leaping from window to window, putting everything right with a golden hammer. At the end, Felix and the chunky little inhabitants of the block throw Ralph from the roof and he splats into a muddy puddle at the bottom.
The twist is that these aren't little wisps of code going through the motions but sentient beings with hopes and dreams. In Ralph's case, those hopes and dreams get crushed every time he takes his end-game tumble. His fellow characters in the game want nothing to do with him - crudely trying to keep him from attending their 30th anniversary celebration - and Ralph's only outlet is visiting a support group for similarly afflicted bad guy characters.
This is possible because every arcade machine is connected to the others via their plug sockets, with the surge protector acting as a giant white nexus point for all the game worlds. It's here that Ralph gets the urge to prove himself to be more than just a wrecking machine, only good for being endlessly defeated, and sets off to earn a medal in Hero's Duty, a bombastic modern lightgun game that is part Halo, part Call of Duty. Using his climbing and wrecking skills to claim the prize at the top of a bug-infested tower, Ralph's clumsy escape results in him rocketing into a different game - a candy-themed Mario Kart-style racer called Sugar Rush.
Here, he loses his medal to the sticky fingers of Vanellope Von Schweetz, a sarcastic and hyperactive young racer who is forbidden to take part in the game because she's a "glitch" - an errant bit of code. Meanwhile, an alien creature that hitched a ride from Hero's Duty has made a nest underneath the sweet soil of Sugar Rush and is breeding. And with Ralph absent from his game, it's designated "out of order" and in danger of being mothballed forever. Felix teams up with Calhoun, the tough but sexy female space marine star of Hero's Duty, to both find Ralph and stop the alien menace from spreading to every game in the arcade.
That's not even all the subplots churning away in Wreck-It Ralph's busy script, but it gives a flavour of how densely packed it is. There are at least five main characters, each of which has their own arc to follow, and the result is a movie that never stops moving.
It also means that the film is a little scattershot in its themes. Vanellope's character works best. Not only does she pop off the screen thanks to adorable design and feisty voice work from comedian Sarah Silverman, but the script uses her "glitch" status as a heartfelt allegory for disability. Ostracised by a clique of popular racers for her inability to control her glitching, it could easily be the story of a kid with epilepsy, Tourette's or some similar malady. The way her story is resolved manages to find a way to both overcome and accept her "glitch".
Ralph's story is less easy to pin down, and cuts to the heart of what makes the movie fall so tantalisingly short of greatness. He's a bad guy. He's programmed to be a bad guy. There's no way for the game to accept him as a good guy, so much of his character arc is essentially telling kids that you're defined by your label, that you can never change your destiny and that your best hope is that everyone suddenly learns to respect you for doggedly performing your role and not getting ideas above your station. It's never as blatant as that, but the message is there, which makes it a very confused movie on a thematic level.
Sadly, the blame for this awkwardness falls on the choice of subject matter. While it contains many delightful nods and references to classic games, Wreck-It Ralph never finds a consistent angle from which the video game world makes sense, either as its own self-contained universe or as a metaphorical reflection of the outside world. The idea that our toys come to life when we're not around resonates deeply. Where video games are concerned, that same fantasy doesn't really exist. The popular conceit is that of the player entering the virtual world (as in Tron) or of that world becoming real (as in The Last Starfighter). Wreck-It Ralph is probably wise to avoid that well-mined territory, but fails to replace it with an equally compelling fantasy.
After a strong first act, the video game aspect of Wreck-It Ralph quickly becomes a background abstraction, used mostly to magic up convenient plot devices thanks to the nebulous rules that govern not only each game but the way they interact with one another. We're told that characters are immortal in their own games, but die permanently when outside their own domain, yet this idea is never really used - except as a way to generate peril for characters we know can spring back to life over and over again. The nature of the movie's villain also suffers from this - his reveal is both undercooked and illogical based on the laws the film has put in the place. The notion of extra lives, restarts, power-ups - the defining characteristics of the medium being explored - don't factor into the story at all.
Nor does the film grapple with the implications of its characters being subject to control from players. There's a great scene, shortly after Ralph has gone AWOL, when a disgruntled girl player interrupts Felix's search for his nemesis to make him jump pointlessly around the screen. There's a glimmer of something deeper there - something that might have more to say about the idea of free will and the ability to reinvent yourself than Ralph's existential crisis - but it's never referenced again. The whole relationship between player and game, something that feels like it should be the heart of any story like this, is left completely unexplored.
While Wreck-It Ralph may struggle to connect its arcade universe to our real one in a meaningful way, it certainly has lots of fun with the surface details. Opening with a pixel art rendition of the Disney logo, followed by a chunky PRESS START prompt, there's clearly a deep and abiding passion for gaming at work here. Wreck-It Ralph, the game, feels like it could have been a real arcade machine from 1983.
It's in the first 30 minutes that gamers will have the most fun, as it's here that the film spends the most time in the overlapping world between the games. You'll see Ralph go for a drink at Tapper's bar, where Ken and Ryu unwind after a hard day's fighting. The best gags from the support group scene have been spoiled in the trailer, but it's still a joy to see Clyde, one of the ghosts from Pac-Man, presiding over a group that includes Bison and Zangief, Mortal Kombat's Kano, Dr Robotnik and Bowser. The scenes in the vast, white transit station in between the games are begging to be paused on Blu-ray so you can pick out the dozens of background references.
The movie gets that it's not just characters that resonate as well. One scene finds Ralph rummaging through some lost property and pulling out a giant red exclamation mark with the alert sound from Metal Gear Solid. Later in the movie, a character uses the Konami code to access the innards of a game and cheat.
Sadly, after having so much fun hopping from one game world to another, the movie settles into Sugar Rush and starts mixing in candy references - such as the admittedly clever Nesquik Sand - with the games material. It's hard to blame the filmmakers for choosing to stick with one location and develop the characters rather than pandering to older gamers with a feature-length parade of obscure references, but it does mean that the film feels like it only scratches the surface of its concept.
Wreck-It Ralph certainly isn't a disaster. It's funny, charming and has a giddy energy that suits the arcade environment. There are some spectacular action scenes and the different design aesthetics of various games - both real and fictional - mean that it's a visual treat. It also suggests a world where kids are still excited about arcades and where ageing cabinets are still a popular attraction, which is a nice little pipe dream in itself. The gaming content may only be skin deep, but its heart is very definitely in the right place.