Wreck-It Ralph is a big win for Disney. The characters are adorable, it’s contemporary while holding on to classic themes, and it embraces the original Disney mantra of focusing on strong original characters. Every one of them is flawed, and deeply lovable.
But most notably, this is the first Disney film in nearly a decade that returned to the Renaissance-era tactic of playing the long game. Promotion for the film started early, the characters were developed publicly and the merchandising appropriately on-key.
A version of Ralph’s game — Fix-It Felix Jr. — in the movie was released for smartphones in advance of the theatrical release to familiarize fans with the world of the film. It ramped up to the top of the iTunes best seller list inside of a week.
Previews of the characters rolled out alongside the main theatrical trailers on YouTube and the popular Apple Trailers website. The 8-bit-style poster of Ralph’s face began popping up in cities around the world, and television spots teased familiar video game characters like the Pac-Man ghost and Bowser to boost interest among older viewers.
As Sarah Silverman (who lends her voice to the film’s main gal Vanellope) points out in this interview, there is an important history to video games now. Both as an art form in itself and as a way of telling stories, video games have become integral to pop culture in the same way as movies and music. Wreck-It Ralph does a great job of celebrating that history, while paying appropriate homage to its cultural impact.
And Disney has a strong history presenting video games on the silver screen in a skillful way that leaves audiences feeling as if the studio respects gamers (even if Disney Interactive routinely releases sub-par gaming experiences).
Disney’s Tron and Tron: Legacy were both instant hits that became iconic symbols of the gaming world, even if they didn’t represent any games currently on the market. Tron succeeded because it didn’t attempt to imitate the gaming experiences others had developed, but instead sought to create its own gaming environments to suit its story.
The same lessons were brought to great success in Wreck-It Ralph. All of the featured games — Fix-It Felix Jr., Sugar Rush, Hero’s Duty — are familiar themes and instantly comparable to childhood and current favourites. But at the same time, they’ve been modernized and integrated into the world created by director Rich Moore.
This makes sense, since Moore is a huge gamer himself and well in tune with popular culture. Moore has directed more than 70 episodes of Futurama and 17 early episodes of The Simpsons, including classics like Cape Feare, A Streetcar Named Marge and the Itchy and Scratchy Movie. But what makes Moore an especially interesting choice for directing this film is that he’s a complete Disney outsider. Moore had only ever worked on television shows, and most of them with Fox (aside from two Futurama movies, which were both direct-to-DVD).
Moore is a giant kid inside. In this short video about Sugar Rush, he giggles like a child at the idea of himself throwing “rocks into frosting to see how it moves.” Having grown up with games, Moore and his team included more cameos from more publishing companies than it’s appropriate (or reasonable) to mention here. But an extensive list of all the references to the history of video games is being gathered on this wiki.
(Warning: Spoilers be ahead)
But what makes Wreck-It Ralph especially adorable is Vanellope Von Schweetz. Vanellope spends most of the film branded as a “glitch” that has no place in her racing-game world. But rather than a stock romance between her and Ralph — a romance that would be difficult to believe — the story pushes them together as allies, siblings or even a father-and-child kind of friendship. The relationship that forms between them is so touching because it’s so familiar: They are family who get to know each other throughout the film.
Vanellope’s character also has the most satisfying story arc. She finishes the film not by reinventing herself or changing her nature, not by becoming a princess or fulfilling her dreams, but by learning to celebrate her true nature, embracing her inner rebel and learning to win on her own terms. She’s one of the best role models for young women that Disney has yet created.
It’s no surprise that while browsing the Disney Store this Christmas season, several Disney employees I spoke with said Vanellope toys were the must-have of the season, quickly selling out, while Ralph and other characters languished on the shelves. The film is named after Ralph, but Vanellope is its heart.
But with Lasseter at the helm of both Pixar and Disney, the tone and style of both studios are merging to the point of being difficult to differentiate. I overheard more than a few people at movie theatres and in the Disney Store this winter who called Wreck-It Ralph the new Pixar movie. It’s hard to blame them, after all, when Brave, Monsters University (for release this Spring) and Wreck-It Ralph blur the barriers that used to exist between the two studios. Whether it’s important for each studio to maintain independent brand identity is a separate debate, but it may well have already been tossed aside by executives at Disney. After all, this is the first time since 1999’s Tarzan that it feels like the studio really knows what it’s doing.
On the financial side, it also seems like a wise choice. Lasseter is good at making money for Disney. Wreck-It Ralph, on a budget of $165-million, has brought in more than $240-million worldwide at the box office so far. The DVD and Blu-Ray release will generate tens of millions more. On opening weekend, it easily stole the top spot, set an opening weekend sales record for Disney Feature Animation and more than doubled the second-place film, Flight.
Fans loved it, critics praised it and even the New York Times wrote: “Wreck-It Ralph manages to be touching as well as silly, thrilling and just a bit exhausting. The secret to its success is a genuine enthusiasm for the creative potential of games, a willingness to take them seriously without descending into nerdy pomposity. I am delighted to surrender my cynicism, at least until I’ve used up today’s supply of quarters.”
It’s a rare film that manages to be nostalgic and fresh at the same time, but Ralph and Vanellope have presented a brilliant new addition to the Disney canon. Walt would be proud.
Wreck-It Ralph is a worthy 52nd addition to Disney Feature Animation and is a clear indication that the studio is back on the rise. It’s also the final installment of our Disney Project. We welcome you to browse through the rest of our posts and thank you very much for following us all year.