Video game movies don’t have a proud legacy. Even though the Super Mario Bros movie seemed like it would usher in a glut of game stories adapted for the big screen, the film was shot down by critics and Mario fans alike. Worse, subsequent game movies didn’t learn from Super Mario’s mistakes, as directors tried over and over again to stuff awkward game stories into movie scripts. Two decades later, video game movies have achieved a breakthrough. Granted, Wreck-It Ralph actually pays tribute to gaming culture instead of adapting a specific game, but that’s the reason it succeeds.
It can be argued that video game movies tend to fail with critics and at the box office because it’s very difficult to successfully adapt interactive game stories into a passive medium like a film. Moreover, video games are a comparatively young form of entertainment; though games are relaying progressively better stories, they still need time to mature as a teller of tales. After all, it wasn’t that long ago when the primary motivation for a game was “Don’t let the ball slip past your paddle.”
But while games still need to brush up on succinct storytelling, video game culture has had a lot of time to develop, and game culture one of the topics that Wreck-It Ralph explores. The movie features a cast of characters that run the gamut from the earliest days of the arcades straight through to the multi-million dollar shooter games that are popular today. As a result, there are more than enough references, background gags, and in-jokes to make video game fans of any age smile.
However, game fans should also be warned that Wreck-It Ralph puts its own characters and plot ahead of its cameos of Ryu, Ken, Sonic the Hedgehog, and other licensed game heroes. The story follows Ralph, the titular gorilla-sized villain who smashes up buildings in the classic action game “Fix-It Felix Jr.” Felix repairs the damage that Ralph leaves behind, making him beloved by the denizens of the game. Ralph, meanwhile, is shunned, even when the arcade closes and “work” is done with for the day.
The lessons that Wreck-It Ralph present aren’t anything new in the realm of kids’ movies; from minute one, it’s obvious where the plot is going to go, and it goes there. That’s not to say there aren’t some intriguing twists (every game needs one!), nor is it to say that Wreck-It Ralph is predictable to the point of being boring. Its varied cast of characters give the plot enough momentum to keep it rolling at a good clip through slower moments. Ralph’s unappreciated even though he’s excellent at his job, and that’s certainly a theme that’s easy to sympathize with. Felix’s bouncy dialogue and cheerful manner make him more than a detestable goody two-shoes, and Sargent Tamora Calhoun is pretty much the ideal “strong female character” that game developers have been trying to make for years with limited success.
Wreck-It Ralph is cute and heartwarming. It’s also the perfect balm for anyone who’s had their brain chapped by years of awful video game movies. Of course, Disney’s film pays tribute to video games across the ages instead of adapting one specific property, but that’s why it’s worth watching; Wreck-It Ralph is essentially a “missing link” between movies and games, and hopefully it’ll inspire future screenwriters that wish to transfer game stories to the big screen as painlessly as possible.