Disclaimer: this is not a Pixar film. But it’s still got some charm, writes ALEX KEMP.
Non-Pixar attempts to crack the animated film niche haven’t proved too successful of late. At least, not with the critics. The bar set by films such as Up, Wall-E and the Toy Story trilogy – films that worked their magic on adults and children alike – has driven our standards to a tremendous height. Now, if I leave an animated film without having sobbed half my body weight away, I start to question whether it was worth the ticket price. And whenever a non-Pixar animation is reasonably successful with the critics, they insist on calling it ‘an example of why Pixar does not have a monopoly on family entertainment’. The fundamental assumption has remained: there are non-Pixar animated films, and then there are Pixar films. The two are simply not in the same league.
So when Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph was released to widespread approval and continual comparisons to Toy Story, I was skeptical. Comparing any film to Toy Story is a dangerous move, but particularly so in the case of Wreck-It Ralph. The film concerns video game characters in an arcade which, when vacated by the children at night, comes alive. Sound familiar? It also follows the recent trend of having a ‘bad guy’ as the protagonist (see Despicable Me and Megamind), and the gentle-giant Ralph – who is tired of being an ostracised outsider and wants to gain acceptance by becoming a hero – has something distinctly Shrek-y about him.
It’s probably inevitable that a film like this seems highly derivative. The animation industry has produced and recycled movies on every thinkable variation of anthropomorphism- from toys, bees and ants, to monsters, robots and even pandas. In the past this has produced fantastic results like Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc., but the most successful Pixar films of recent years (both critically and commercially) are those which have abandoned this tried-and-tested formula – I’m thinking of Oscar-winners Up and Brave. Those which continued to scrape the anthropomorphic barrel had less success; take the two sub-standard ‘Cars’ movies, the concept of which – animate automobiles – was just odd.
Wreck-It Ralph’s video-game concept is both its raison d’étre and its weakness. It’s clearly crafted by people with an intense love of gaming: it’s bursting at the computer-generated seams with hidden references and in-jokes that will leave the fanboys in the audience squealing with delight. There are also some more familiar gags, such as Ralph stealing cherries from Pacman to feed the homeless.
But the film’s concept doesn’t work as smoothly as it should. Whereas the idea that toys might come to life is familiar to everyone from childhood, I’m doubtful as to whether kids nowadays feel the same way about the characters in their video games. The genius of Toy Story’s concept was its relatability. No explanation was necessary. Wreck-It Ralph, by contrast, has to work for such engagement – offering continual caveats and explanations of its own concept: ‘If you die outside of your game, you don’t come back to life,’ ‘S glitch cannot leave its own game,’ and so on.
On occasion, the film feels like little more than a barrage of in-jokes and puns; first on video-games, and later – when the action moves to a racing game called Sugar Rush – on confectionary. Meet Oreo soldiers, taffy vines and a volcano made of Mentos and Coke. These are good fun, but the film only really becomes worthwhile in the final part, when the thinning gags are replaced by a series of effective emotional sucker-punches. It’s certainly not on a par with the soul-wringing first ten minutes of Up, but Wreck-It Ralph may well leave you blubbing by the end.
Pixar needn’t feel particularly threatened by this film, especially since Brave just smashed it at the Oscars, but gamers and non-gamers alike will appreciate its gentle charm. As a film that ends with a little girl pronouncing on the virtues of ‘constitutional democracy’, its heart is definitely in the right place.