Warning: spoilers ahoy.
There are generally two types of “video game movies”: movies adapted from video games (which are really nothing more than ports of a game’s story onto a theatre screen), and movies about video games. Examples of the former include Prince of Persia, Street Fighter, Mario Bros. and the like (all execrable), while examples of the latter include Tron and Gamer (not much better). The takeaway here is that Hollywood doesn’t have a goddamn clue how to properly represent video games in film form, which, if we’re talking about movies adapted from games, is surprising giving their success in porting comic book stories over to the cinema (and the stories there are even more convoluted). Given how cinematic games are these days (don’t Mass Effect and Metal Gear Solid feel like movies?), this should be a walk in the park. Writing movies about games, however, is much harder, since a lot of technical jargon comes into play that most film directors couldn’t give two shits about. As gamers, we’re treated to ludicrous, drug-induced representations of “hacking” (which seem to usually involve flying through cyberspace itself), along with some kind of plotline involving the eradication of a virus (yeah, because video games can get infected by viruses somehow). The out-of-touch writers probably consider what’s “bad” in the world of technology that they barely understand (oh noes! my email got a virus!), then figure that since games run on those strange Nintendo computers, they can probably get viruses too. If we’re lucky and someone on the team has played a Halo game in the last ten years, we’ll hear someone say they “owned” a “noob.”
What makes Wreck-It Ralph different from those movies is that it feels like it was actually written by people who understand games. I usually cringe when watching these sorts of movies because I feel like I’m being constantly bombarded by things that are either desperate, uncool pandering to what out-of-touch Hollywood personae believe is the gamer demographic (picture your mom telling you how “l337” you are) or things that just don’t make sense. Games aren’t the fantasy free-for-all that most outsiders believe they are; they have a deeply codified set of rules, just like any other cultural phenomenon, only this particular one seems to have many more unique quirks. So when I see the Nicelanders (who live in an 8-bit arcade game reminiscent of Donkey Kong) moving in a jerky, frame-by-frame style of animation, I grin broadly. These guys get it. Rendering the Nicelanders with modern CG production values is SOP for Disney, but making them still seem like they’re still uniquely 8-bit despite lacking the defining feature of that era (ie. the pixelated appearance)? That takes skill.
Cameos from real video games featured prominently in the movie’s advertising, which probably led most believe to believe that John C. Reilly was going on an adventure with Bowser and Sonic the Hedgehog. Well, most of the “easy” game references are limited to the first half hour of the movie. Any animator can put Sonic, Pac-Man, or Skrillex (??) into a movie for a cheap jolt of nostalgia, but it takes one who actually knows his history to lobby for Neff from Altered Beast or Tapper. A scene where Ralph looks through a lost-and-found chest and digs out various game treasures is clearly included for cheap game references, but I laughed in spite of myself when he pulled out the ! from Metal Gear Solid (complete with accompanying sound effect). But the parade of classic game characters ends quickly, and the movie becomes much better for it. You see, while the simple character fanservice ends, the video game references actually don’t stop; they just become much more subtle.
Fix-It Felix, Jr. has chiptuney 8-bit music, but “retro” stuff like that is a dime a dozen nowadays. Hero’s Duty, the movie’s Halo/Gears of War/Call of Duty parody, has a suitably epic orchestral soundtrack, but again, super easy to emulate. But Sugar Rush, a cutesy kart racer clearly based on Mario Kart? It has what I can only describe as “Mario Kart music.” The stuff honestly sounds like it was ripped straight from Double Dash!! I don’t know how they manage to ape the game’s soundtrack so perfectly, but it’s nothing short of amazing. The attention to detail here goes far beyond what I had expected of a so-called “video game movie.”
Upon finding himself in the nauseatingly cute Sugar Rush, Ralph groans about behind stuck in what he clearly perceives to be a kid’s game, which is kind of amusing given that would be a typical reaction from the average 25-to-35 year old straight male gamer (the game itself looks fun as all hell though, for the aforementioned Mario Kart influences). Vanellope’s secret lair within the game is essentially an unfinished level, which seems innocuous to the average viewer, but hardcore gamers will instantly recall the treasure troves of unfinished content found in Knights of the Old Republic II and countless other titles. The part that got me smiling was during Vanellope’s race against the evil King Candy (played by a hilariously effeminate Alan Tudyk) where she enters a portion of the track that has a rainbow-coloured road. It even has no walls.
Of course, Wreck-It Ralph does share some of the same tired flaws that seem to affect most video game movie writing (the viral Cybugs that threaten to “infect” every game in the arcade, Calhoun being “programmed” with a tragic past, prominent overuse/misuse of industry buzzwords like “high-definition” and “first-person shooter”). Interestingly, a few of the references, while being so vague and seemingly insignificant that they would just fly over most viewers’ heads, would actually seem overused to most hardcore gamers, such as Ralph’s Leeroy Jenkins moment in Hero’s Duty and the Konami Code (which King Candy feels the need to dictate to us as we watch him input it just in case we’re total morons). You can’t win ’em all, I guess.
At first glance, Wreck-It Ralph seems like pure fanservice, which would mark the first occasion of someone in Hollywood realizing that gamers actually like specific aspects of games such as certain characters and items. And even if they stopped there, it would still be better than just about every game movie ever made. But by the time the movie finishes, you feel like you’ve actually watched a proper movie with a storyline that, while metaphorically typical of Hollywood and Disney in particular, is given fresh life and unique circumstances thanks to its video game setting. It’s more than just a parade of famous game characters with a Toy Story coating of “what do they do when the humans aren’t around?”; it’s a solid movie that understands how games work and how characteristics unique to these games can be incorporated into a film about games. I’m surprised it’s taken us so long to get here, but it’s progress nonetheless; going forward, anyone making a movie about video games should first check how well it stacks up against Wreck-It Ralph, which is easily the new benchmark for the genre.