There are movies you see once and you never want to see again. Other movies require multiple viewings in order to pick up on the subtext and subtitles. And then there are the enjoyable enough movies to leave on the TV over and over again just because they’re fun. Wreck-It Ralph is one of those rare movies that’s fun for a revisit yet is peppered with enough hidden references to make to make the rewatch worthwhile. After a second viewing this weekend, I still walked away impressed. Ralph keeps to the
8-bit world of old-school arcade games and moves flawlessly into the HD gaming experience that was starting to take root when I stopped going to my local arcade.
It’s a colorful nostalgic trip for those of us who still store our NES and Sega Genesis in our attics or basements. The beginning is reminiscent of Toy Story, with an underground world of video games that come to life once the arcade closes for the night and characters who leave their game to explore other worlds. Our main character, Ralph (John C. Reilly), is the antagonist of the game Fix-It Felix Jr., and the narrative follows his quest for acceptance from the fellow inhabitants of his game. He finds a fellow misfit in Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), who’s been ostracized from the pastel-colored Sugar Rush game because she’s a glitch who could imperil the game’s very existence. and as we learn, renders the inhabitants of the game homeless, forever stuck at Game Central Station.
Wreck-It Ralph grapples with the question of whether identity is hard-wired or mutable differently in the cases of Ralph and Vanellope. When, at movie’s end, Vanellope is returned to her “rightful” form, she chooses to remain her frumpy self in what looks like the most comfortable sweater even seen in an animated movie. It’s who she “really” is, giving a nod to the idea that identity is something that one develops, not what you’re “programmed” with. Ralph, on the other hand, has to come to terms with his bad-guy role; in what can be read as forced assimilation, he even visits a support group for villains. Thus, one of our leads gets to change her appearance to suit herself, but the other must accept his lot in life—a mixed message if there ever was one.
Still, considering that the world of gaming, in particular online gaming, tends so notably toward misogynist putdowns and homophobic slurs, Wreck-It Ralph offers a refreshingly gender-balanced look at video-game fandom. There’s a young female arcadegoer who tries her hand at the game Hero’s Duty, a first-person shooter game. She then tries to play a “girl’s game,” the aforementioned Sugar Rush, and is dismissed by two boys that they’re staying on to play each different racer in the game (boys playing a candy-coated racing game? Kind of awesome). She then moves on to our main game, Fix-It Felix Jr., and makes the pivotal discovery that Ralph’s gone AWOL. I know it’s a small thing to notice, but female figures occupy such a contested place in gaming worlds that situating a young girl as a key player feels significant.
That’s also why the Lara-Croft-meets-drill-sergeant character Commander Calhoun (Jane Lynch) is so much fun. She’s a tough military leader who never veers into the ridiculously unrealistic costume department. There’s even a joke about her character getting “programmed with the most tragic backstory” that leads to a flashback of Calhoun seeing her husband eaten by the insect monsters of her game on the day of their wedding. It’s a perfect poke at the conventional video-game writing that starts so many adventures off with a story about redemption or revenge.
I’m not sure how well arcades are faring, but after exiting the theater with my little sister, I asked her what she thought of the movie. She said she loved it, but added that she never played video games on machines in a place like that before. Here’s a rundown of the games that appear in the movie. Note that the credits also serve as an entire homage to old-school games.
Did you see Wreck-It Ralph yet? What did you think?