Let’s get something out of the way early. I’m not much of a gamer. As such, I’m told I missed a lot of the references in Wreck-It Ralph. Even if that’s true, not being intimately familiar with video games didn’t prevent me from liking the movie or getting some of the jokes. At least the Q-Bert ones, at any rate.
The titular Ralph is the bad guy in Fix-It Felix, Jr., an old arcade game in which he wrecks an apartment building. When his game celebrates its 30th anniversary and Ralph is left out of the celebrations, he decides his days of exclusion are over. Determined to be accepted by his co-characters, Ralph crashes the party only to be antagonized by the building’s residents. That night, Ralph sets out on journey to get a medal; if he returns to his game with a gold medal, he will be welcomed as a hero and no longer shunned.
Blending concepts encountered in Tron and Toy Story, Wreck-It Ralph is set inside the world of video games, specifically the games in Litwak’s Arcade. After the arcade closes for the night, the game characters freely move about the various game worlds, with the central electric hub acting as Game Central—a kind of union station. But even though game characters can come and go from their games, and bitter enemies share drinks after hours, Ralph is still identified as a bad guy outside his game.
Wreck-It Ralph is very much a hero’s journey, with a goal-oriented story that mimics most game plots. Ralph is called to adventure through his desire to be a hero, and must quest for a gold medal. Ralph gets the medal early, but looses it soon after. His new goal, to re-acquire his medal, is more challenging, but not impossible. After suffering a personal defeat, Ralph must quest once more, this time to redeem both himself and another game character.
Of course, the film is more sophisticated and nuanced than that. Heroes don’t normally quest to become heroes, it happens by virtue of their journey, through the trials and hardship they face, and by redemption through defeating their enemy. Ralph, by contrast, pursues his medal with single-minded determination, and then takes up someone else’s cause, having at once achieved and abandoned his goal of gaining his medal and becoming the hero. Ralph has no real enemies he needs to defeat—he is the enemy where everyone is concerned—but he can help others find their own redemption, and it’s through this selfless act that Ralph is able to finally be the hero.
Ralph’s initial quest begins and ends in the game Hero’s Duty in which the winner gets a medal. Ralph gets there just as the arcade is opening, meaning he will have to perform as an expendable character. This fish-out-of-water scenario is rife with humour, but the scene’s real strength is its postmodern envisioning of an FPS from the perspective of the game characters. Made to reference Gears of War, Hero’s Duty features a tough, no-nonsense female commander, Sergeant Calhoun who guides the player through the game’s various levels. Inside the game, the player is a kind of rolling monitor that follows Calhoun around, and she periodically speaks to it, telling the player important information related to game play.
Calhoun dare not go off-book, but Ralph’s shenanigans inside her game cause the player to lose. Although the game may be over for the player, Ralph is in the process of winning. It’s an ironic moment, almost meta-textual. But then Ralph accidentally releases the game’s “villain,” a swarm of bugs, and the movie’s subplot.
When Ralph leaves Hero’s Duty, a bug goes with him and the two wind up inside Sugar Rush, a car racing game set in a world made of candy. Upon arrival, the bug disappears underground. As Calhoun explains, the bug acts like a virus: it will multiply and become whatever it eats. It’s only a matter of time before the swarm takes over Sugar Rush, destroying the game. As Ralph gets caught up in the politics of Sugar Rush, Calhoun stalks through the candy landscape, looking for the bug. With her is Felix, who’s searching for Ralph.
Meanwhile, Ralph is embroiled in the mechanics of Sugar Rush’s game engine. Each day, Sugar Rush features a random selection of characters, a selection that’s determined each night through a race. Vanellope, glitchy character, desperately wants to appear on the roster and she uses Ralph’s medal to buy her way into the race. She and Ralph strike a bargain. If he helps her win the race, he can have his medal back.
King Candy is outraged that Vanellope managed to sneak into the elimination race. He reaches out to Ralph, and explains the consequences should Vanellope appear as a racer when the arcade opens for business. Moved by the King’s plight, Ralph abandons his quest and embodies his villainy in order to save Sugar Rush from certain doom. It’s perhaps the most gut-wrenchingly emotional moment in the movie, the unspeakable tragedy of Ralph demonstrating to Vanellope the true nature of his programming.
But Ralph is not the bad guy in Wreck-It Ralph. After all, what game is titled after its villain? In truth, Ralph, Vanellope, and everyone inside Sugar Rush are being played. And when the real bad guy is revealed, and all the story threads come together, the movie culminates in a dramatic (if maybe a bit predictable) climax.
Although seemingly made and marketed for kids, Wreck-It Ralph is more adult than it seems. It plays heavily on nostalgia, which excludes younger audience members from getting some of the jokes. The film is also rather dark, despite it being largely set in what amounts to Candyland. Vanellope is picked on and bullied by the other racers, and King Candy, who was likely modelled after the Mad Hatter, exudes the same psychological instability. Then there’s tough-as-nails Calhoun, who was programmed with the “most tragic backstory” and suffers from mild PTSD. And, lest we forget, if Ralph fails to return to his game by morning, Fix-It Felix, Jr. will be unplugged and its characters abandoned, homeless in Game Central.
There’s a lot on the line in Wreck-It Ralph, it’s about more than just winning a game. For that reason, the film is for everyone, gamers and non-gamers alike. Course it helps if you know a little something about video games, even if it’s just to recognize Pong.