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Wreck-it Ralph (2014): Ralph Makes a Sacrifice

Remember that time when the characters in the video game you were playing came to life and started eating all the food in your refrigerator, complaining that you had far too much cheese in the dairy drawer and not enough garbanzo beans? No? That was only me? (Sorry. I’m being told that was a chocolate milk induced hallucination and that I am not using my social filters like I promised.) I’ll start again. For a while now, it’s been well documented that when our backs are turned, our toys come to life. That’s just fact. Last night I found my G.I. Joe in the tub with a Fairytale Magic Barbie and her Princess Unicorn. I don’t even own a Fairytale Magic Barbie. Or Princess Unicorn. But they used up all my lavender baths salts. Anyway, as I tried to say earlier, it’s not just the toys springing to life. It’s video games too. At least over at Litwak’s Arcade it is. After the store closes, all the characters in the games jump out of their programs and travel about through the power cables, treating the arcade like a day job.

Walt Disney Studios
Walt Disney Studios

But not all the game characters are happy with their work. Meet Ralph (John C. Reilly), the “bad guy” in the popular platformer Fix-it Felix Jr. They call him Wreck-it Ralph. His job is to smash the building before Felix (Jack McBrayer) can fix it. Problem is, Felix has a magic hammer and wins every time, sending Ralph off the top of the building and into the mud down below. And he’s been falling all day every day for thirty years.

Once the arcade is closed, he trudges over to the ginormous stack of bricks and debris he’s created over the years and calls it home. No one in the game is his friend and worse, for the 30th anniversary party, he isn’t invited. Not even a slice of cake. He’s tired of being the bad guy and wishes for nothing more than to be accepted by the people in his little world. It’s a fresh, new, and exciting idea never before explored in film! (Whoops, leaning on the sarcastic button on my keyboard, there.) Any-hoo. Ralph expresses this to his support group, a gathering of video game baddies who meet and talk about life as video game nemesis-es. Nemessesses. Nemesi. The evil doers. They’re all comfortable in their roles and are shocked to hear that Ralph wants to turn good.

Ralph figures that if he’s ever gonna get to be friends with residents of the Fix-it Felix Jr. building, he’s gonna have to do what Fix-Felix Jr. does. No, not fix things. That’s not in his programming. He’s a wrecker. He needs to get a medal. That’s what Felix gets every time he wins. A big shiny gold medal. If Ralph could get a big shiny gold medal like that, he’d surely be in with the “it” crowd because being a winner means everything, just like in real life too. Win the medal and everyone loves you. They forget second place and the girl you had a crush on since third grade ends up sitting with Tony LaFountaine during recess instead of you because he knows how to spell “lasagna” in the fifth grade spelling bee and you don’t. Curse you silent “g”. Of course, since this is a movie about “goodness” and “morals” and “qualitative trans-formative character development through social cognitive learning experiences” then Ralph first begins with thinking just owning a medal is good enough. Kinda like how I thought just owning a house plant would be easy, but nooooo, they have to have sunlight and water and attention like every day to stay alive. It actually takes work. Stupid photosynthesis. So he starts out infiltrating a first person shooter in hopes of getting the coveted medal at the end of the game. But he sidesteps the actual “earning” part where he and his teammates must fight off waves of evil alien buggy things and just climbs up a tower during non-game play and steals the prize, tricking the system like he’s Kirk on the Kobayashi Maru.

But don’t think it’s that easy. In his celebration, he steps on an alien egg and it hatches, immediately clinging to him like an imprinting newborn Xenomorph facehugger with significantly less acid. Ralph stumbles blindly into an escape pod and it jettisons from the tower straight out of the game and crash lands into another decidedly less first person shooter one.

Walt Disney Studios
Walt Disney Studios

There he meets a little kid and the film’s primary demographic, Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a sassy little girl with some ‘tude and a peculiar way about her. Yes, she exceedingly adorable, but she also well, glitches. Every few minutes she skips a bit and can even reappear in a different spot.  If you’re thinking this will pay off later, then you earn a big shiny medal. And speaking of medals, she up and takes Ralph’s stolen medal and runs off with it, needing it so she can enter the game’s primary activity, racing. She’s been banned from racing because of her glitchiness but refuses to stop trying. She’s spunky like that. Ralph, having fallen into green frosting, gives chase.

Eventually, the two see they are sharing a similar problem. Each want to be accepted into their own games as equals, but neither can truly be that because of who they really are. Directed by Rich Moore, this very clever and highly satisfying animated film is a treat for any age. While the story is dusty, the delivery is exceptional. Filled to the motherboards with video gaming Easter eggs and blink or you’ll miss it gaming references, the movie is nothing but charm and fan service that keeps viewers interest throughout, if anything for what is coming up next. Grounded by a wonderfully nuanced voice performance by John C. Reilly, Ralph is a deeply realized character that most anyone can relate to. It’s really some of his best work and deserves high praise. Additionally, Alan Tudyk as King Candy is a marvel. Harkening back to silly voices of cartoons long past, his portrayal of the King of Sugar Rush is inspired lunacy and a highlight of the movie. While its setting might limit appreciation or even interest in the film it deserves to be watched as its storyline and character transcend the environments and offer a nicely rendered vision of life behind the screens at Litwak’s Arcade.

That Moment In: Wreck-it Ralph

Scene Setup: Wreck-it Ralph and Vanellope von Schweetz have become good friends, discovering they have a lot in common. This becomes most apparent after Ralph decides to help her win the race and join the daily roster by sneaking into the car bakery and cooking up a racer, even though he’s far better at breaking than making. The car is a Hodge-podge of confections and sweets barely resembling a race car, but Vanellope adores it and is overwhelmed with happiness. That’s when the King and his croonies arrive, but Ralph and Vanellope easily escape, driving through a glitchy wall on Diet Cola Mountain that their pursuers don’t see. It’s here, in Vanellope’s hidden home, where Ralph learns that she is just like him, living in the discarded junk of her game, unloved by all the rest. And it is here where he builds her a race track and helps her learn how to drive her new candy car, getting her ready to take on those that have pushed her down for so long.

Walt Disney Studios
Walt Disney Studios

The Scene: (Timestamp 1:03:16) Just before the two are about to head to the race track, Vanellope tells Ralph to wait as she dashes back to the secret hideaway, telling him she forgot something. That’s when King Candy shows up and faces Ralph. Prior to this, the King had been rather ferocious in his demands that Vanellope cannot race, so when he arrives, Ralph is naturally a little hostile. But the King takes on a less menacing tone, and this time explains to Ralph why the glitchy girl can’t race. It seems he’s worried that if she actually get’s in the pack, gamers will see her glitching and think the game is broken. If that happens, then they might tell Litwak and he’ll pull the plug on the system and then everyone will be homeless. But worse, since Vanellope is a glitch, she won’t be able to escape and she’ll perish in the unplugged game. So while Ralph had thought that King Candy was trying hurt Vanellope, he was actually trying to save her.

Walt Disney Studios
Walt Disney Studios

While all of this will prove wrong in a bit, in this scene, we see Ralph take the King at his word and it’s important because until this moment, Ralph has been singular in his pursuits. He’s been focused only on getting his medal and becoming the hero in his own game. Here, King Candy has actually given him the medal, enticing him him to complete his quest. He could just run away and leave Sugar Rush and Vanellope far behind. Medal in hand, he could return to Fix-it Felix Jr. and prove his worth and get invited to parties, eat pie and be accepted as family. But that would be a sour victory.

But before he leaves Sugar Rush, he confronts his new friend. Vanellope comes back to the car and surprise, she’s baked him a medal all her own. He has become a real hero in her eyes. But that’s about to change. He tells her she shouldn’t race and that if she does, just like King Candy said, she could die. He pleads with her listen, that he is trying to help her, that the gamers might think the game is broken and have her unplugged. But she is furious and worse, feeling betrayed. They two argue as he desperately tries to keep her out of the car and she, in a state of high emotion, glitches frantically, uncontrollably. He eventually hangs her by her hoodie on a  lollipop tree limb, to try and calm her down.

Finally, to prevent her from competing, he does what Wreck-it Ralph does best. With a little hesitation, and Vanellope’s cries of despair behind him, he looks as his hands for a moment, realizing who he is and what he is all about, clenches his massive fists, raises them high then brings them down, wrecking her car.

This is the moment when Ralph truly becomes the hero. Understanding who he is, that his wrecking ability has the power to do something good and save someone else rather than himself is the turning point. From here on, Ralph is not driven by his need to be accepted or the hope that others will see him as something that he is not. Recognizing that Vanellope is really just like him, struggling to be seen as empowered and special, he sacrificing his own dreams to save hers. Or at last to give a chance for another. Smashing the car did more than prevent Vanellope from racing and perhaps being destroyed by an unplugged game, it ultimately freed Ralph.

This moment is surprisingly powerful with strong voice work by both Reilly and Sarah Silverman as Vanellope and a touching musical piece by Henry Jackman. The animators capture the depth and impact of the moment well, keeping Vanellope in frame as she watches her car become crumbles. This is is without a doubt, the most traumatic moment in the film, and the film smartly keeps it emotionally true, allowing the shift from comedy to drama to take hold of the viewer. It signals a sharp new direction for the story and while we were fond of Ralph from the start, now we are right behind him. All the way to the end.


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Director:

Rich Moore

Writers:

Rich Moore (story), Phil Johnston (story)

Stars:

John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch

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