There’s a guilty pleasure in watching Disney’s affectionate homage to the dusty old 8-bit video games that were so adored by kids of all ages when Steven Spielberg’s E.T. was setting the box office alight.
Once as common a sight as Starbucks, arcades have gradually retreated to seaside piers and motorway service stations in the face of the relentless onslaught of ever-more-technologically impressive games consoles.
The hugely entertaining and cleverly put-together Wreck-It Ralph celebrates this dying breed of coin-swallowing entertainment in a lavishly animated movie that also doesn’t forget the higher-definition games that have followed in their wake.
For the past 30 years, Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) has played the bad guy in the Donkey Kong-esque arcade game Fix-It Felix, Jnr, smashing up an apartment block only to see it put back together by gee-whizz good guy Felix (Jack McBrayer). It’s a role he’s grown tired of and, during a support group for video game villains reveals he wants to be the good guy for a change.
He gatecrashes a party at Felix’s penthouse home celebrating the game’s 30th anniversary, but is rebuffed by the other characters, who tell him to accept his station in life. Believing the only way he can be seen as ‘good’ is to earn a medal like Felix, Ralph sneaks into ultra-violent first-person shooter Hero’s Duty, but inadvertently launches a catastrophic chain of events that could lead to each of the games in the arcade being unplugged.
From the moment an 8-bit Walt Disney title card appears at the start of the film, the warm glow of nostalgia takes hold. Much like the Toy Story franchise (which Wreck-It Ralph closely resembles in its premise), there’s a timelessness at work here. I can certainly remember slotting countless coins into games like Pac-Man, Out Run and Dragon’s Lair – it’s how my love affair with video games started – and each generation since will have their own memories of the games they grew up playing.
This is nicely captured in a time-lapse sequence at the arcade where the action is set, wherein Fix-It Felix, Jnr sits in the same position over 30 years while the games around it come and go and the fashions and tastes of the youngsters who play them subtly change.
Director Rich Moore and his team introduce a number of nice little touches, including the jerky movements of the less-well developed supporting characters in the game and the blocky low-res furniture in Felix’s apartment, while in Sugar Rush, a garishly coloured kart racing game into which Ralph crash lands and ends up befriending the cute Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), all the characters are made of candy in some nightmarish Disney vision of hell, including policemen made of doughnuts.
As you might expect, there are nods subtle and unsubtle to a whole host of iconic games and game characters, including Tapper, Q*bert, Street Fighter, Metal Gear Solid, Sonic the Hedgehog and Halo (there are many more I undoubtedly missed), while the loony ruler of Sugar Rush King Candy (Alan Tudyk) is deeply reminiscent of the Mad Hatter from Disney’s 1951 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.
Henry Jackman’s score, like the film itself, cleverly shifts in tone to reflect the different styles of the games and it wouldn’t be surprising if Wreck-It Ralph‘s ingenious ghost in the machine concept ends up breeding its own franchise.
After a slew of disappointing big-budget animations (even the normally reliable Pixar has been off its game of late), it’s great to see a return to form for the Mouse House and a film you’ll want to replay many times.