Thursday, 14 February 2013

Wreck-It Ralph Review

Something amazing has happened!
While we weren't looking, mainstream animation has had a growth-spurt, matured and finally decided what it wants to be when it grows up. We've reached the point that Walt Disney always wanted animation to reach: It's no longer just for kids.

Pixar has obviously been leading this charge ever since Toy Story - peaking with Ratatouille, which isn't really for kids at all - but even their credibility took a hit with the less-adult-friendly Cars 2. Dreamworks have always been at the other end of the spectrum, with much more emphasis on fart and poop jokes. The reborn, reinvigorated Disney (Meet the Robinsons onwards) lands somewhere in the middle.
But we suddenly find that each of the big three have delivered true family films - accessible to kids, but just as accessible (if not moreso) to adults.
It finally feels like the industry has figured out that distinction. Even Madagascar 3 is said to have pretty universal appeal (though I still couldn't bring myself to watch it) and, for the first time since Ice Age, Blue Sky seem to be targeting their next film at more than just kids (though the title, Epic, is bland enough to appeal to precisely no-one). That's five - a full-house!

When I say that they appeal to both adults and children, you may think (as the marketing sometimes implied) that Wreck-It Ralph is a kids' film with some gamer-jokes thrown in for parents. But (as Dreamworks have proven time and again) filling a childish movie with adult jokes is a guaranteed way to alienate both camps.
No, this recent animated trio succeed because they are all films with deep, fully-rounded characters, emotional challenges as well as physical ones, moral complexity, real stakes and real danger, and dark villains who reflect what our heroes (or their mothers) might become. They are, in other words, just Good Films. And Wreck-It Ralph is the best of the three.

The titular Ralph is the villain of a Donkey-Kong-alike arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr. He's a big angry guy who destroys everything he touches - but it's not his fault. He's not bad; he's just programmed that way. When the other characters in his game refuse to see this, Ralph begins jumping between the machines in the arcade, searching for a way to prove his worth.

It's in this early stage that most of the in-jokes and cameos that filled the advertising take place. The first act is a mass of blink-and-you'll-miss it sight-gags and references. There are crowd-scenes that gamers will be pausing to trawl through for years to come! But these are in no way integral, and they don't distract from the story at all. It's strictly background stuff and, while getting these jokes will add another layer to the experience, not getting them won't harm your enjoyment at all (I have no idea what a Q*bert is, for example). Games aren't the subject of the movie or even the theme - they're just the setting.
The potential of that setting is incredible. With so many varied games in the arcade (both real and fictional) and with each one containing its own world and set of rules, there's a sense this film could go literally anywhere. It's all rendered beautifully, too - each game-world is distinct and looks fantastic, and there's some great tics to the animation to more closely mimic games. The movie makes the most of this potential at the start but, after visiting only a couple of worlds, the game-jumping aspect is dropped and the rest of the story plays out in only one game. It may seem like a wasted opportunity, but Wreck-It Ralph is absolutely right to do so, and this would be a much weaker film if it didn't.

It's here, in a candy-themed racing game called Sugar-Rush (where the characters look like Miis and the final level looks suspiciously rainbow-like), that the film settles down and has a chance to breathe. After the manic, frantic excitement of the first act, we're allowed to explore this place organically - meet its characters, learn its rules. And it's here that we meet Vanellope von Schweetz.
Vanellope is a glitchy, broken character who shouldn't really exist. Like Ralph, she is shunned by her peers and longs to be accepted as part of the game.
As well as not existing, Vanellope shouldn't work. By all rights she should be incredibly irritating. She's loud, abrasive, showoffish, childish, selfish and hyper (presumably from all the sugar). She even makes poop-jokes. She could easily have been a disaster but, somehow, she pulls off adorable, sweet and, more than once, completely heartbreaking.

Her friendship with Ralph is the emotional core of the film, as they both slowly grow to trust and confide in someone else for the first time. It's the ups and downs of that friendship that make the film affecting and even powerful. And there really are ups and downs - the movie makes them work for it. When things get really bad it's devastating - but the awful lows just make the highs that much sweeter. Their friendship is handled so brilliantly that there's a moment lifted straight from Monsters Inc. which, while just a throwaway gag in that film, had me blubbing happy tears in this one.

Don't think it's all soppy emotional stuff, though. There are chases and races and flights and fights and many other action-scenes that probably rhyme. That core friendship is wrapped inside a bigger story that threatens both of their worlds and both their lives. We're told early on (by Sonic the Hedgehog, no less) that, though you might normally respawn at home, death outside your native game is permanent. So whenever Ralph is in danger - and there's quite a lot of danger - we know the peril is real. And the fate reserved for glitches like Vanellope is somehow even worse. Throw in a genuinely scary bad-guy, and a final act that escalates into something much bigger and even more affecting, and the stakes do get surprisingly high!

With the emotion, weight and visual polish of Brave, the scale, action and variety of Rise of the Guardians, and a vein of humour and game-culture that's all it's own, Wreck-It Ralph is an almost flawless family film - up there with Dreamworks' finest, if not quite with Pixar's.
Just like Vanellope, the film is loud, showy and hyperactive but, just like Vanellope, those aren't the reasons you'll love it.