I made what I thought was an interesting connection in my head while sitting at the Disney El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, waiting for the press screening of Wreck-It Ralph to begin.
If you don’t live in Los Angles, El Capitan is a classic old movie house on Hollywood Boulevard (It’s literally right across the street from Grauman’s Chinese Theater.) that has in the past few years been completely refurbished and operated by Disney. Built in 1926, El Cap hosted the world premiere of Citizen Cain. After falling into a state of serious disrepair, Disney and Pacific Theaters reopened the newly fixed-up palace in 1991.
One of the many treats in watching a film there is the great Wurlitzer organ, played by the great organist Rob Richards. The pre-movie medley of Disney songs that Richards plays is kind of amazing to hear, especially when you consider the great pieces of music Disney films have given us over the years.
So, this is where my connection kicked in; most of the Disney songs Richards plays are in chronological order. There is a massive gap in time between the great songs like “Bear Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book in the late 1960s and the Menken/Ashman modern classics that began to populate the Disneyverse in the late ’80s and early ’90s. In short, there’s a pretty sizeable gap in Disney animation in the ’70s and most of the ’80s.
The Disney animated tradition was reborn largely under the guidance of then studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg. And, they continue now under the leadership of Pixar guru John Lassiter.
The latest film to come out of the Disney Animation Studio is Wreck-It Ralph, a sort of mash-up between Toy Story, Roger Rabbit, and video games.
John C. Reilly voices the titular character Wreck-It Ralph, the villain in an early ’80s, 8-bit video arcade game called Fix-It Felix, Jr. Ralph’s job in the game is to destroy an apartment building while Felix the hero uses his golden hammer to fix Ralph’s damage. Felix is voiced by 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer. As in the now classic and vastly influential Toy Story, the video game characters have lives of their own when the arcade closes and the humans have all gone home. And, like Who Framed Roger Rabbit (in which Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse got to interact despite their differences as intellectual properties), Wreck-It Ralph allows for a number of video game characters to occupy the same world. Anybody who spent time in video arcades in the 1980s will have a ball spotting all of the obscure characters.
Ralph has been wrecking that building for three decades, and he begins to have the common existential crisis, questioning the nature of his existence. Is being the bad guy and wrecking things all there is to life? Ralph is jealous of Felix’s status as the game’s hero, but he’s even more saddened by his own status as an outcast. While Felix and the other tenants of the apartment have a strong bond of community, Ralph is exiled to live his life in the dump outside the building.
Like many Disney characters before him, Ralph sets off on the journey to change his fate. If only he can earn a medal (only heroes can win medals, you see), he will become part of the community.
So, Ralph starts game jumping.
His first stop is a modern, Halo-like, first-person shooter called Hero’s Duty. There, Ralph encounters space Marine Sgt. Calhoun (voiced by Jane Lynch). Very quickly, Ralph nabs his medal. But, he also unleashes some nasty monsters into other games as he crashes into a Mario Kart-like kids’ racing game called Sugar Rush.
Once in Sugar Rush, Ralph meets Vanellope von Schweetz (voiced by Sarah Silverman). Vanellope has a similar outsider status in her own game. She’s a glitch, an error in the program, and like Ralph she’s isolated from the other folks in her world. Vanellope’s dream is to race in the game, but her dreams are opposed by King Candy (voiced by the great Alan Tudyck). Since Vanellope is a glitch, her winning a race could undo the game’s programming, a.k.a. it’s entire social fabric.
Meanwhile, Ralph’s absence from his own game jeopardizes its characters, as the game may be unplugged, causing everyone to be homeless. Felix must find Ralph and bring him home.
One of my favorite things in movies is when a torrent of creativity gets unleashed onscreen. Wreck-It Ralph is one such movie. The number of smart, fun, and clever ideas (both verbal and visual) never wanes. For instance, King Candy’s goons are two cops, and since they exist in the candy-coated world of Sugar Rush, they are doughnuts. And, their names are Wynnchel and Duncan. Credit screenwriters Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee for a non-stop barrage of very smart jokes.
The voice cast is spot on, as well. Conan O’Brien has said that Jack McBrayer is the nicest person on the face of the earth, and he is well cast as Felix. John C. Reilly is more than up to the task of both Ralph’s comedic and more serious material. As a Joss Whedon fan, I’ve loved Alan Tudyck for years, and he’s able to be both funny and villainous, often at the same time.
But, the real revelation here is Sarah Silverman. I mostly like her as a stand-up, but I’m not always on board with the type of comedy that’s based on saying the most offensive thing you can think of. Of course, Silverman’s way of doing that is in a baby doll voice and an open-eyed innocent persona that can’t possibly see how what she just said was offensive. But, here she uses that little girl voice and adds in a layer of genuine warmth. Vanellope is, for me, the breakout character of Wreck-It Ralph. She’s really terrific.
Wreck-It Ralph is a beautifully designed film. It’s just gorgeous to look at. And, the 3D actually added something to the movie, which you can’t always say. I’d like to write more about where we are with 3D some other time, but suffice it to say that director Rich Moore has used it in a frequently eye-popping fashion.
And, as is the case with most animated films aimed primarily at kids, Wreck-It Ralph has that typical theme of always being yourself. But, I think there’s more at work here. Vanellope is considered a mistake, and if she, as a glitch of the system, is awarded equal status, it will reset their world as they know it. Feel free to insert your own fear of minority equality allegory (like gay marriage or a black president) and I think it would fit.
Wreck-It Ralph is colorful, fast paced, and very, very clever.
Also noteworthy is the short film Paper Man that opens the program. Paper Man is a beautifully rendered, black and white animated short that effectively uses CGI to recreate the classic 2D look of vintage Disney. It’s wordless and it’s wonderful.