Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

Wreck-It Ralph first published by Sight & Sound, Feb 2013

Wreck-It Ralph

Review: “What’s going on in this candy-coated heart of darkness?” wonders Wreck-It Ralph, the dungaree’d villain in 30-year-old arcade game Fix-It Felix Jr.



The most straightforward answer to Ralph’s question is nostalgia. For as this existentially anxious wannabe hero emigrates from his own Eighties coin-op platformer to the newer, more graphically violent first-person shooter Hero’s Duty, and then onto the richly coloured (and flavoured) Nineties racer Sugar Rush, we are being invited to take an affectionately rose-tinted gaze back at the arcade games played over the previous generation, and to survey how video gaming has transformed in the intervening years. Ralph may start off disgruntled with having always to be the bad guy, but in the end he will go back to where he started, instilled with a new sense of professional pride, and happy to embrace his (and his film’s) status as “retro – which I think means we’re old but cool.”

There is also a more complicated kind of nostalgia here for the world of Disney, which, not unlike the saccharine-seeming kingdom of Sugar Rush, has been rocked over the decades by internal wrangling and external rivals, and has had to evolve to survive. Accordingly, while the ostracised Vanellope may in the end have her princess’ crown and pink dress restored, this modern girl prefers her utilitarian civvies and a “constitutional democracy”, in what is an unmistakable upgrade of the studio’s traditional values. The year 2012 marks the 30th anniversary not just of the fictive Fix-It Felix Jr, but also of Disney’s TRON (1982), a semi-CG feature similarly concerned with the off-console lives of arcade game avatars (and directly evoked by the look of the beacon tower in Hero’s Duty). Yet times and tastes have shifted since the Eighties, and Wreck-It Ralph showcases an epoch-leaping range of animation styles, from Ralph’s own flat 8-bit world to the full-3D intensity of Hero’s Duty, the cloying kaleidoscope of Sugar Rush, and the stylised photorealism of Mr Litwak’s gaming arcade – all as good-looking as anything from Pixar (which of course Disney now owns).


Still, while children gawp at all the (sometimes literal) eye candy and laugh at jokes about ‘vurping’ (vomiting and burping), there is more going on in Wreck-It Ralph for older viewers than mere Scott Pilgrim-style gaming nostalgia. For the film’s virtual worlds occasionally admit the odd shard of reality: gaming villains attend AA-style meetings to address their inner anguish at having to be evil on repeat play; in their downtime, in-game soldiers suffer post-traumatic stress disorder; and unplugged games create homeless digital refugees. Meanwhile, proletarian Ralph’s questioning of his exclusion from a bourgeois apartment building (after three decades of committed service) reflects the social immobility and polarisation of these straitened economic times – and the film’s resolution of this problem comes with in-built contradictions. Ralph may ultimately just knuckle down for the same old wrecking routine out of a renewed sense of what he calls ‘duty’  – and yet, as earlier puns from Vanellope had revealed, ‘duty’ sounds alarmingly like ‘doody’. Same shit, different day: the perfect metaphor for the way that Wreck-It Ralph rings the changes on video games, animation, and familiar storylines set in inventive microscosms.

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Same shit, different day…
Synopsis: For 30 years, Ralph has played the building-wrecking bad guy in arcade game Fix-It Felix Jr. Ostracised and unwelcome, he leaves Nicetown for the newer first-person shooter Hero’s Duty, hoping to win a medal and acceptance. Attacked by a Cy-Bug, Ralph rockets into cutesy racing game Sugar Rush. Discovering that the destructive Cy-Bug has escaped too, Sergeant Calhoun joins Felix to help clean up Ralph’s mess. Meanwhile Vanellope, a glitchy pariah in Sugar Rush, promises to return the medal that she ‘borrowed’ from Ralph if he helps her design a Kart and win the race. Ralph builds Vanellope a practice racecourse in her volcano hideout. Persuaded by King Candy that, if Vanellope wins, her visible glitchiness might lead to the game being unplugged, Ralph wrecks Vanellope’s new Kart.


Alone again, Ralph learns that previously King Candy had deleted Sugar Rush’s leader and erased everyone else’s memory; only Vanellope’s victory could reset the game. Her Kart now fixed by Felix, Vanellope races, even as Cy-Bug offspring start devouring Sugar Rush. King Candy is unmasked as Turbo, a once-popular character from ano


ther game who has since usurped the Sugar Rush throne. While fighting King Candy (who has morphed with a Cy-Bug that ate him), Ralph smashes the volcano’s peak, destroying the Cy-Bugs, and is saved from falling by Vanellope. The game reset, Vanellope is revealed to be Sugar Rush’s one-time princess. Ralph happily returns to duty in Nicetown. Felix and Calhoun marry.


Anton Bitel