Wreck-It Ralph Review

There’s a moment from my childhood that I remember quite clearly. I’d just acquired a copy of Mega Man 2, and as I sat in my room letting the game devour a Saturday afternoon, I heard other children laughing and playing outside. I set down my controller, went to the window, and thought, “Pssh, losers.” Then I went back to playing.

Needless to say, the trailer for Wreck-It Ralph caused me to babble excitedly and earn worried looks from my wife. A high-quality piece of big budget media that takes video games seriously and isn’t itself a video game? I’ve needed another fix of that since Scott Pilgrim sauntered onscreen and showed me it could be done.

As I watched the preview, however, something also unsettled me. Wreck-It Ralph seemed to be missing its audience. Numerous characters from my childhood marched out and pranced around onscreen, but this looked like a movie for the kids of today … would these modern youngsters be willing to take a break from screaming obscenities on Xbox Live to figure out this movie and its many old school references? On the other hand … should I care? Maybe it was made for me after all.

So, was it? Well, Wreck-It Ralph certainly is chock full of legit gaming references, but many of them merely skim the medium’s surface. For example, Zangief, Street Fighter 2’s burly contender from the USSR, is portrayed as a villain for no other reason than, I guess, being from the USSR. Admittedly, other media portrayed him this way first, but as far as I remember, he was not a bad guy in the game itself, which is what this movie is all about.

It also tries to approach modern games, but does so cautiously, wearing full hazmat gear. Ralph stumbles into a generic first person shooter called Hero’s Duty in search of a medal — his only way of proving he’s actually a good guy to the digital community — but after being attacked by repetitive waves of giant robotic bugs, he asks, “when did video games get so violent and scary?” When their users grew up, Ralph. Although you wouldn’t know we did based on this stereotype of violent video games. I mean, some games are actually like this, and I suppose it lampoons those well enough, but by and large video games aren’t just toys for children anymore. Why should older gamers be denied the mature content fans of movies, books, and television enjoy? And many adult gamers don’t play games like this for “points” or “medals,” despite what Fox News might say. I play single player shooters like Bioshock because I love the lore, the story, and the world-building; I play multiplayer shooters because they’re essentially a competitive sport, honing my reflexes and rewarding teamwork, skill, and strategic thinking. Plus, it’s a sport I can play every night with friends who live hundreds of miles away.

I’m tempted to start ranting about how they also do not transform me, or any of the millions of players out there, into unhinged, violent psychopaths, but that isn’t what Wreck-It Ralph is about. Despite its occasional missteps — which make me think producers wouldn’t stop tinkering with it or it was written by gamers who “grew out of it”* in the ’90s — the movie is, undeniably, a loving homage to video games, and arcade classics in particular. In those games, and in this film, each character has some special skill, some role to play, and when all those systems work together, magic happens.

Not only that, but it’s actually a pretty great movie. The story is sturdily built, and the inevitable emotional payoff is, in my opinion, more effective and moving than most films for grown-ups. I really did want Ralph to succeed being who he is, and because he’s a lovable, misunderstood oaf, it wasn’t too hard to overlook the questionable moral message of “be yourself, even if you’re the bad guy.” Hopefully the dictators of the future won’t be citing this flick as inspiration.

Anyway, it’s a genuinely fun movie that’s difficult not to enjoy. But as a movie about video games, a topic I’m perhaps a bit too passionate about, Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t quite hit the mark. It’s a not-so-well-researched love letter to an age gone by that refuses, like so many TV shows and movies before it, to acknowledge that video games are growing up, and that maybe it isn’t such a bad thing after all.

*A phrase often uttered by gamers too embarrassed by popular culture’s perception of their hobby to continue enjoying it into adulthood. Sad, as they miss out on both fun, challenging games and truly stunning works of art.

 Featured Image: Some rights reserved by Jon Jordan.

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