Walt Disney Animation Studios have long appropriated and repurposed the narratives and characters from European fairy tales, folklore and myths to make feature films that connect with contemporary audiences and reflect the ideology of the time. Attempting to do something similar with the narrative and characters of computer games is a bold and innovative step, which recognises the importance of games in popular culture. The Walt Disney Pictures films Tron (Steven Lisberger, 1982) and Tron: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, 2010) previously attempted to transform gaming logic and iconography into narrative cinema, but it is the computer-animation feature Wreck-It Ralph that demonstrates the full potential of the concept. Not only does Wreck-It Ralph successfully adapt the style, characters and narrative of games into a feature fiction film, but it recognises the prevalence of gaming mythology and like the classic Disney fairy tale films, it engages with that mythology to reflect specific values and serve as a morality tale.
The premise of Wreck-It Ralph is that the characters within computer game arcade machines are self-aware and have lives of their own when not being played. Voiced by John C Reilly, Ralph is the disillusioned antagonist in a game titled Fix-It Felix, Jr. Fed up with being typecast as the villain, Ralph sets out to prove that he can be heroic, which leads to adventures briefly in the violent first-person shooter Hero’s Duty and then the cutesy confectionary themed kart racing game Sugar Rush. The first striking thing about Wreck-It Ralph is that it is from a studio known for perpetuating stereotypes and tropes, and it is set inside a medium that is also notorious for its stereotypes and tropes due to the simplicity of many game narratives requiring clearly defined good and bad characters. And yet Wreck-It Ralph signals right at the beginning that it is about a character who is sick of being stereotyped and is intent on subverting the restrictions placed upon him. Not only is Ralph a self-aware computer game character, but he is also a self aware Disney character.
Director Rich Moore has a background directing animated television shows, such as The Simpsons and Futurama, so has some experience working with material that manages to be self-reflexive and satirical while maintaining a broad appeal. Wreck-It Ralph is full of famous computer game characters and generic characters that even the most casual gamer should recognise as belonging to a particular style of game. More impressive is how well Wreck-It Ralph adopts the movements and style of various eras of gaming into the way the characters move and interact with their surroundings. The results not only deliver plenty of fun sight gags, but also effectively flesh out the worlds behind the arcade screens. However, it is the logic of gaming narratives that are most subversively used. For example, Hero’s Duty character Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun (voiced wonderfully by Jane Lynch) is revealed to be as aggressive as she is because of the backstory she was programmed with, acknowledging the simplicity and often shallowness in which character motivations, across many different types of media, are often explained and justified.
More interesting is how successfully Wreck-It Ralph represents class and gender. Disney has long celebrated inherited power and wealth for its protagonists while the villains were often members of the lower or working classes who refuse to stay put. Through the tales of royalty and aristocracy, Disney championed a very problematic vision of the world where the ruling class were seen as righteously occupying a place of born-to-rule privilege that should never be undermined. Often a princess character was at the centre of such narratives, and frequently the drama came from her being wrongly denied her birthright. While the princess characters have become more an active participant and less a passive bystander in the last few decades, she still exists as an unobtainable ideal the audience is supposed to side with, despite how such a character defies all notions of equality.
Wreck-It Ralph beautifully undercuts all notions of plutocratic rule. As a character who refuses to adhere to his social status, Ralph is an unusual and unconventional Disney protagonist. As early as the opening scene he comments on the hero of his game Felix Jr (Jack McBrayer) having the good fortune to inherit the magic hammer from his father, introducing the fundamental unfairness in the way things have turned out. And while Felix isn’t portrayed as a villain, he is initially presented a naïve character who mistakes his good fortune as success he achieved himself.
The moment that Wreck-It Ralph really excels is when it resolves the story involving Vanellope von Schweetz (voiced by Sarah Silverman), a 9-year-old computer glitch and racer in the Sugar Rush game whom Ralph teams up with. Wreck-It Ralph seems to head directly toward the sort of resolution that typifies so many previous Disney films to only undercut itself in such a blatant way that it seems to be overtly acknowledging the Disney legacy of entitled princesses in order to declare it no longer relevant. It’s a wonderful moment.
Perhaps it is no surprise that a Disney film that celebrates outsiders (Ralph the ‘villain’ and Vanellope the ‘glitch’) over social cohesion should contain a variation of a character from Alice in Wonderland (Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske, 1951), the most anarchic and unconventional of the classic Disney animated feature films. In Wreck-It Ralph the main setting is ruled as a monarchy by King Candy. He is the tyrant of Sugar Rush who not only looks like the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, but is voiced by Alan Tudyk to sound just like the Mad Hatter voice actor Ed Wynn. Linking to Alice in Wonderland in this way is yet another touch that suggests the extent in which Disney may have acknowledged and then shaken off its previous regressive values.
With Wreck-It Ralph Walt Disney Animation Studios demonstrates that it can deliver a self-acceptance message along with a fun spectacle, without indulging in antiquated born-to-rule scenarios or princess tropes. The voice cast is uniformly excellent and it’s difficult to think of another recent animation where the leads have been as perfectly voiced – Reilly, Silverman, McBrayer and Lynch are exceptional. The writing and narrative structure recalls the best Pixar films, where no story element is superfluous. Scenes that seem like fun diversions during earlier parts of the film are recalled later to tie everything together without ever feeling contrived. Wreck-It Ralph is a major advancement for Walt Disney Animation Studios in all regards.