It's been a long wait. It's been an arduously long wait. But Walt Disney Animation Studios' 52nd animated feature, and one of its most unanimously praised ones in decades, Wreck-It Ralph, has finally hit the UK. Disney landed the film with an uphill battle: die-hard animation fans (myself included) harboured resentment at the delay and casual viewers - including many a friend of mine - have given up waiting and pirated the film - we don't endorse that, but it is a cold, hard fact that Disney need to wake up to. So, the question I posed to myself as I walked into the cinema on Saturday morning was a simple one: is it worth the wait? And the answer I arrived at within minutes was a resounding yes.
Wreck-It Ralph is not only Disney's best film in decades - and this is coming from someone who has loved all of their recent output, particularly 2010's Tangled - but it's also the first time ever that a Disney animated film has, pound for pound, bested a Pixar one. That's not to take anything away from Brave, which I particularly loved and is a supremely good film, it's just an acknowledgement of how much Disney has recaptured its magic - thanks, I'm sure, in no small part to the superlative guidance of Pixar head honcho John Lasseter.
Ralph is an unbridled success on pretty much every front: it's funny, it's heart-warming, it's very original and very, very clever; much like their Pixar brethren, the team at Disney haven't pandered to their audience one iota. I sat in near-constant awe and fascination during the film and am extremely impressed with what director, and The Simpsons alum, Rich Moore and his team have accomplished.
The genius of Wreck-It Ralph is that it exploits a very lucrative niche that no film has ever really, successfully, taken full advantage of before: gamers. Amongst the group of friends that accompanied me to see the film were many who would (and do) normally scoff at the suggestion we go see an animated film, but yet were very excited by the prospect of Wreck-It Ralph; it's a shame that they harbour such prejudices against the medium, but Disney brilliantly use the film's innumerable game references as an entry point for fans of all backgrounds, and then keeps them glued to their seats with a magnificent story. With gaming references ranging from Sonic to Pac-Man to Street Fighter to Frogger to Metal Gear Solid, Wreck-It Ralph is filled to the brim with gaming references, nods, winks and more - as well as some very clever food related ones in Sugar Rush; a group of Oreo palace guards was a particular highlight, and for the animation buffs, there was even a nod to Hayao Myazaki, with a Sugar Rush racer called Minty Zaki - which lends itself to a Toy Story-esque charm and nostalgia that enraptures young, teen and adult audiences.
Indeed, it's not too much of a stretch to label Wreck-It Ralph the next Toy Story (although it's equal parts reminiscent of Who Framed Roger Rabbit), although that feels a little bit of a flat analogy. Because, although Ralph does strike up the same sense of childlike glee that Toy Story does, it is wholly its own thing. The references are fun to see, and very, very funny, but this film would more than suffice with a fraction of them, due to its humour, its heart, its delightful script and story and the sense of confidence and self-assuredness Disney clearly have for the film.
If you don't know - which, if you're reading this blog, you probably should - Wreck-It Ralph is set inside the world of a video game arcade, Litwak's, and, again striking up a Toy Story vibe, ponders what happens when nobody's around. The result is 108 minutes of brilliance, stuffed with cameos and jokes galore, that is simultaneously witty and heart warming. Ralph, the titular main character, is a bad guy, treated with contempt or indifference by the other inhabitants of his game, Fix-It Felix, Jr.. But Ralph is fed up, bored and lonely, he chooses to go against his programming, to prove to his game's good guy, Felix, and the ironically titled Nicelanders that he's more than just a building-wrecking-brute. To do this though he needs to win a medal, which involves doing something that the other characters frown severely upon: leaving his game and entering another.
From here, the story really gets interesting, as Ralph heads to Game Central Station. Game Central is a port between the various game worlds in Wreck-It Ralph, a veritable plethora of nods and references - gamer heaven - and the intricately thought out terminal to a better life for Ralph. He heads, from here, to Hero's Duty - a world inspired by desolate FPS games like Halo and Gears of War - where he sets about trying to win a medal, but ultimately complicates things when he jettisons himself, and a deadly Cy-Bug, into the candy coated kart world of Sugar Rush. There he meets, yet doesn't quite it hit it off with, the young and positively adorable Vanellope von Schweetz.
Vanellope, it turns out, is a glitch, a fact that means the rest of her game's inhabitants ostracise her in much the same way that the Nicelanders do to Ralph. So, eventually, Ralph sets about to help Vanellope, and himself. Ralph is a rash, sometimes dunderheaded, but always endearing character, written superbly well by scribes Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee, and the audience is fully invested in his arc throughout - of course, strong voice acting by John C. Reilly definitely helps. Vanellope, likewise, is a very flawed character - hence why she came across as so annoying in the trailers - and her lowbrow toilet humour doesn't help things (it's one of the movies very few low points), but, by the end of the movie, she may well be your favourite character. Voiced ingratiatingly by Sarah Silverman, Vanellope exudes an innocence and a fragility that means you can't help but love her. That, and the sibling-like relationship between her and Ralph is one of the most genuinely touching on-screen pairings in years.
As for side-stories and the film's supporting cast, there are three main highlights. Fix-It Felix, Jr., the titular hero of the game Ralph inhabits, is brilliant; he's funny, he's dorky, he's naïve and he's voiced by Jack McBrayer, what's not great about that? The really funny 8-bit animation and mannerisms make him even more loveable, and, as said, McBrayer's voice work is magnificent - some of the best of the year. At the polar opposite end of the spectrum is Jane Lynch's Sergeant Calhoun, a tough-as-nails bad-ass from Hero's Duty, whom Felix falls head-over-heels for. She "was programmed with the most tragic back-story ever", as one soldier puts it, and is well developed, but, like Felix, she's just plain funny. The pairing of the two of these characters is great and helps to keep the Cy-Bugs side-story interesting until its massive pay-off at the end (more later).
As for the final great character, this one's a doozie. King Candy is (massive freaking SPOILER alert if you haven't seen the film) the film's villain, and, boy, is he a good one. Alan Tudyk energetically voices the candyland's cunning tyrant, channelling a lot of Ed Wynn's Mad Hatter, and imbues him with a sense of ridiculousness and pompousness that masks just how warped, evil and utterly magnificent he is until the very end. One of 2012's best animated villains was Rise of the Guardians' Pitch, simply because of how menacing and, yet, multi-dimensional he was; King Candy is likewise brilliant. In fact, one of the few complaints I had during the film was that King Candy felt a little underdeveloped, I felt he wasn't in the film enough, - like Doctor Facilier in The Princess and the Frog - but Disney sure remedied that in the last twenty minutes or so. I'll try not to give too much of the devilishly clever plot twist the film packs away, but, if you've seen it, you'll know what I mean when I say the Turbo storyline and it's pay-off at the end was brilliant; I love it when a twist takes me completely by surprise, and that's something that truly happens quite rarely outside of the work of Chris Nolan.
This film has been floating around inside the walls of Walt Disney Animation Studios for several decades now, under many pseudonyms (High Score, Joe Jump, Reboot Ralph), but nothing had come of it. Nothing may have continued to come of it, if it wasn't for the work of its eventual director, Rich Moore, an animation veteran who's directed many episodes of The Simpsons (The Telltale Head, Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie) and Futurama (Space Pilot 3000, A Clone of My Own). Moore's influence and his sterling leadership of the team's story, art and animation departments made this film what it is, and what it is is great. Significant praise should also go to producer Clark Spencer though.
One key aspect that I haven't touched on yet, given this is an animated film, is its animation. Disney is the home of animation; without John Lasseter having revived Disney animation, Wreck-It Ralph wouldn't have existed, and without Disney, John Lasseter wouldn't be the animation powerhouse he is and wouldn't have been able to revive Disney animation. As such, it's great to see Ralph embrace its cartoon roots so thoroughly, there are animated films that you can see being made in live-action, but, much like Pixar's Up before it, this is a film that just has to be animated. The animation is varied wildly across the film, meshing retro 8-bit movements and fluid Disney character animation to hilarious effects. The film also has a beautiful and diverse set of worlds, with the huge Game Central Station and the lush Sugar Rush being particular highlights for me.
The music, too, was great. Henry Jackman's original score is brilliant, drawing inspiration from 8-bit game music of days gone by and weaving heart and emotion deftly into the seams of the film, the tracks "Wreck-It Ralph" and "You're My Hero" were particular standouts for me. Skrillex's work on the Hero's Duty sections was actually surprisingly effective too. However, the soundtrack also brought forth one of my few criticisms of the film though, in that I felt several tracks seemed to borrow heavily from Randy Newman's Toy Story scores, particularly, for me, the tracks "Vanellope von Schweetz" and "Broken Karted". Nonetheless, an overall strong score, and I really enjoyed the end credits track by Owl City, "When Can I See You Again?" (the end credits deserve a lot of praise too for their originality).
Another minor quibble that I had with the film - along with the small ones about Vanellope's "duty"/"dooty" jokes and the soundtrack - was that, for a portion of the movie, it felt like I was watching two separate stories: Ralph and Vanellope, and Calhoun and the Cy-Bugs, it was starting to irk me just at the very moment that Disney tied it together with a masterful, natural vengeance during the final race.
So, long story short, Wreck-It Ralph is a brilliant, funny, heart-warming, cameo-packed ride, overflowing with a kinetic energy, that is sure to be remembered as a classic for years to come; living, breathing proof that there's still magic and originality to spare at Disney. Roll on Wreck-It Ralph 2!
The icing on top of the cake, really, - alongside the great pixelated Steamboat Willie preceding Ralph - was Paperman. I can't really say anything more than I have done before: John Kahrs' directorial debut is a masterfully heart-warming, visually-striking and utterly enchanting urban fairytale that just makes the whole cinematic experience that much richer. And you know what? You can watch it above!
If you're in the UK, go check out Wreck-It Ralph and Paperman in cinemas now, if you're in the US, Ralph's released on HD Digital tomorrow!
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