Theatrical Review: “Wreck-It Ralph” / Sub-Review: “Paperman”
Produced by: Clark Spencer
Written by: Phil Johnston, Jennifer Lee (screenplay); Rich Moore, Phil Johnston, Jim Reardon (story)
Music by: Henry Jackman
Starring: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Adam Carolla, Horatio Sanz, Mindy Kaling
Video games were probably my first passion. I’ve been a game player since my grandpa first introduced me to his Nintendo Entertainment System back when I was only 4, and while video games have largely become more of a rare hobby of mine since I left high school, I still love the medium and I try to find new favorites (the Uncharted series) while keeping up with my old ones (The Legend of Zelda primarily). So I was pretty excited to hear that Disney was making a film that many were calling the Who Framed Roger Rabbit of video games. Here was the world’s biggest animation studio finally acknowledging the mainstream popularity of video games by not only making a film centered around one, as they did with Tron, but actually making the film part of its prestigious “Disney Animation Canon,” placing it in the same ranks as the revolutionary Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the Best Picture Oscar-nominated Beauty and the Beast.
While the canon undoubtedly has its duds (Home on the Range and Chicken Little are inarguable trash), being among such greats still saddles each new film with a huge burden of expectations. This new film, focused on a topic that many are continuing to (ignorantly) call niche, had a lot to prove. Luckily, for fans of both Disney animation and video games, Wreck-It Ralph, is about as great as some of Disney’s best efforts and is easily one of their more universally enjoyable films in a while, despite the subject matter.
If you haven’t already figured out the set up for this film from the continuous ads that run on TV (or pretty much anywhere else), or if you’re reading this from some time in the future where Disney’s next film, Frozen, has already taken over every broadcast (possibly even under a new name?), then allow me to summarize: Ralph is a video game bad guy, the antagonist of a 30-year-old arcade game called Fix-It Felix, Jr. As the villain, it’s Ralph’s duty to destroy everything, allowing for the game’s hero, Felix, to come in and save the day with his trusty magic hammer that can fix anything.
In this game world, the roles of heroes and villains are largely more like occupations, and yet characters are treated pretty much programmed to continue treating each other as their game dictates, even when the arcade closes up for the night and nobody’s playing. Ralph has grown weary of his role as the villain, however, and even more so the treatment he receives in his programmed role by the citizens that populate his game, moving him to join a villains support group populated by some gamer-friendly familiar faces. Finding little solace in his group, however, Ralph decides to “go turbo” and find a new purpose in a new game, hoping to win a medal and come back to his old game with a new heroic identity.
Needless to say, despite the video game setting, this can easily be dismissed as typical “be yourself” philosophy Disney, and, at its core, yeah, it kinda is. But if you’ve been watching the ads, then you’ll know that there’s another character in the story, a little girl character named Vanellope von Schweetz, who pretty much serves as the film’s primary comic relief. What the ads don’t tell you, however, is that, while she is pretty much playing the part of Ralph’s annoying sidekick, she’s also pretty much the heart of the film and is actually quite endearing.
What’s keeps her dynamic with Ralph so interesting, aside from the great performances of Sarah Silverman and John C. Reilly in their respective roles, is that, while Ralph is attempting to redefine himself to something that he is not, Vanellope is attempting to reclaim a position that she knows to be her place and that others are actively keeping her from — all except for Ralph, of course. Being an outcast himself, he identifies with Vanellope’s situation and, as he begins to understand how her plight differs from his own, he begins to reconsider his responsibilities and place in the world. This character dynamic, with one hero attempting to become somebody he’s not while another attempts to become something she was meant to be, helps to keep the film from feeling too generic in its message, and by the end of the film, both characters have suitably grown. The aforementioned performances elevate the characters above any easy, broad, or derivative characterizations — the primary duo could’ve easily just been a copycat of the Shrek/Donkey relationship, but here, both characters genuinely like and care fore one another. The Wreck-It Ralph filmmakers allow for a genuine, understanding friendship to develop between Ralph and Vanellope, which allows for later story developments in the film to be all the more effective.
I must also point out that Wreck-It Ralph isn’t quite the cameo-happy, world-hopping adventure/commercial that the trailers would lead you to believe. While numerous famous video game characters do make appearances, including Sonic the Hedgehog, several Street Fighters, and even one Mortal Kombatant (making this film the first time you’ll ever get to see a Street Fighter character officially share the screen with a character from Mortal Kombat), this really isn’t Who Framed Roger Rabbit for video games, and Ralph’s game-jumping is relegated to original creations, despite hubs to Frogger, Altered Beast, and other well known games being shown in the background.
Cameo-heavy scenes are pretty much reserved for the beginning and end of the film, too. It may come as a disappointment at first, but, really, I didn’t care too much in the end. The story is too well told, the animation too pretty, and the original characters so much fun (Felix and the tough Sergeant Calhoun from the Hero’s Duty game have a fun side story that integrates into the climax) that I easily forgot about wondering when the next cameo would pop up next, having become engrossed too much in the actual, you know, story at hand. There’s enough product placement in the film as it is, anyway. (Nesquik Sand!)
Wreck-It Ralph is easily summed up as being pretty much everything that you would expect it to be, everything you could ever want it to be, while also giving you what you didn’t know the film needed. Sure, the gamer inside me says that more cameos and adventures into well worn worlds could’ve been fun, but the filmmakers wisely gave us a more polished and engaging story than anything a series of elaborate product placements could’ve provided. Wreck-It Ralph also continues to show that Disney is still serious about renovating the artistic merit of its animated features ever since ousting Michael Eisner, who cynically revamped their path not too long ago — this despite all that product placement. It’s easily one of the best and most fun of the animated features released in this already packed year, and it’s not unlikely that it’s going to win the Best Animated Feature Oscar come February. The film’s already currently in my Top 10 of 2012, anyway, so I’m sure its chances are pretty good…
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5
Produced by: Kristina Reed, John Lasseter
Animation by: Patrick Osborne (animation supervisor)
Music by: Christophe Beck
Starring: John Kahrs, Kari Wahlgren
If you want further proof that Disney is serious about innovative animated films, look no further than the black-and-white animated short that accompanies Wreck-It Ralph, titled Paperman. Though it’s completely different in both tone and style,I’m ultimately thrilled that they decided to release it theatrically anyway, as it’s easily one of the best major animated shorts I’ve seen in quite some time.
Wordless, mostly colorless, and featuring an animation style that is easily described but not easy to picture, Paperman tells a sweet story about a young desk jockey who one day encounters a beautiful girl while waiting for the train on an otherwise mundane workday morning. Caught up in her beauty, he loses track of her, and before he knows it, she’s on a departing train, never to be seen again — or so he believes. Of course, he gets a second chance, when he spots her across the way from his work window in the next building over.
His attempts to get her attention, making paper airplanes from office work, bring a lot of gentle humor to the short film, and though its fantastical conclusion may seem somewhat out of nowhere, it suitably amplifies the film’s already romantic portrayal of the classic “boy meets girl” scenario in a way that really only animation can.
And what beautiful animation it is, using a technique called Meander, which uses a melding of both CG and hand drawn animation to create its uniquely fluid but flat look. The results are captivating, recapturing the rough character outlines of films like 101 Dalmations and The Rescuers while maintaining consistent character designs and smooth movements thanks to the 3D character renderings that lie beneath the 2D detailing. Again, it’s pretty hard to picture from any description, which is why you really should go see it in theatres while you can.
Like the feature film it’s connected to, Paperman is a strong contender for an Oscar-win, even going up against Pixar’s beloved La Luna, which opened alongside Brave. 2012 will likely go down as the year that Disney’s master plan behind purchasing Pixar and stealing all its creative secrets for itself finally came into fruition.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 5 / 5