Wreck-It Ralph review - Screw it

Occasionally, Dan Wilbur and Jason Oberholtzer need some time off from writing genre-redefining books based on blogs. They usually watch movies. Then email about them. Spoilers below.

Jason Oberholtzer: So I saw this movie, Wreck-It Ralph. It wasn’t ground-breaking but it looked really pretty, made me think about graphics and how kids these days are super visually spoiled* and then left me with heart-warming messages of friendship. Maybe it’s because I’m in the midst of one of those intellectual cycles where you return to simple foundational messages or because I watched the movie with an audience of families together for Thanksgiving but I enjoyed the movie and am not ashamed to say it got a little misty in there.

* Remember how lifeless this sort of animation used to be? Computer-rendered movies were hit or miss (with some massive misses) when I was a kid. Same thing with 3D. Something, something, damn kids … my lawn …

Dan Wilbur: Great! Now we can spend this first film review fighting each other because this movie was awful. I thought for sure you’d be sending me a bar graph titled “hours spent on script vs. dollars spent attaining rights for famous video game characters.” One of the bars will be dwarfed by the other. When I think of the thousand or so jokes/observations that have been made about video games in College Humor videos and self-referential games like Paper Mario, aren’t you the least bit (no pun intended) upset that they abandoned the idea of games halfway through the movie for a lazy rehashed story about Candyland? Maybe it’s because I saw the movie at the Pavilion Theater in Brooklyn which means not only did I spend $12 but I also risked Bed Bugs to see something that only got good during the closing credits. I also sneaked a flask into the theater and drank whiskey. Might have also altered my review.

JO: This seems to be the tale of two theater experiences. The question really is about expectations — yours for metahumor tailored to your specific videogame nostalgia and mine for a movie kids would enjoy that still tugged at the old heart strings and delivered a valuable lesson. Well, you can enjoy your gold medal alone in the penthouse buddy, because this is a movie for the people not you frothing nerd types.

Besides, how many hours do you need to spend on a script when I’m pretty sure Fix It Jr.’s part consists entirely of scrap heap lines written for Kenneth from 30 Rock and Sarah Silverman just improvised the whole thing?

DW: I think you’re right. This movie’s not for me because I’ve seen other movies. And those movies were way better. Finding Nemo is mostly made up of funny scenes about how fish behave, in and out of tanks. I don’t expect everything to live up to Toy Story but that’s the most imaginative yet simple premise: they don’t want to be forgotten by their owner, they move around when you’re not there. The only premise of this movie seemed to be that video game characters “can’t die in other games or else they’re dead for real.” Once that was established I thought we were going to see Wreck-It Ralph go through tons of games and see funny situations with bratty kids at the arcade forcing him purposely into peril with the controllers. Instead, his trip to the new game made it seem that game characters’ main concern was to entertain kids so they’re game didn’t go “Out of Order.” (the ultimate death!). So now they’re entertainers. But THEN we go into the Candyland racing game and everything got away from the premise that these characters are in fact toys. Now we’re just a bunch of people trying to make Candyland survive. And then, just for the fuck of it, let’s throw a subplot love scene in there. Where was Pac-Man to eat some of those Mentos? Where was Sonic to give racing tips? Why can’t Bowser and all the other bad guys have a roll in fighting other bad guys? I think the first half of the movie struggled to find a reason the writers made a video game movie, then the second half ditched what they established for an uplifting “what are friends for?” plot that had nothing to do with the first half.

I did, however, love the voice acting. Jane Lynch is perfect and Sarah Silverman does a great job as a cute kid (though I would much rather watch her improvisations because I bet they’re darker and weirder than anything that made the cut). Since we’re talking about voice acting, why is a rip-off of the Mad Hatter in this movie for no reason?

JO: I was disappointed that we got locked into Candyland World or whatever for the bulk of the movie, especially after how promising Ralph’s first foray into a different game was — the first person shooter game sequence was visually stunning and nailed the mood. I would have loved to see them continue to render different worlds.

Okay, let’s look at motivations then. I think you are right here: there weren’t very many on the foundational level, but there is a reason for that. I think the writers bit off more than they could chew when creating the “laws” for this universe and had to steer clear of the ramifications. They raised some meaty questions and probably had to choose between ignoring them or reviving Dostoevsky for a few script punch-ups.

Below the love story, friend story and acceptance story, the exploration of being a “bad guy” was marred by existential problems unaddressed. The characters exist to “do their job” largely devoid of freewill. Ralph and his friends differ from the Toy Story characters in two major ways. First, there doesn’t seem to be any emotional connection to their job — the TS toys did their job (being toys) because they loved their kid and took pride in their role supporting him; the videogame characters in Wreck-It Ralph do their job because, well … they have to. I guess. That’s what they say. This bring us to the second major difference: the videogame characters are ruled by programming to an extent that is unclear. And they are aware of it. The lesson of Bad Guy Support Group? We are bad, it’s our job, we should accept it. But clearly, the joystick doesn’t completely control them, nor does their programming. But in some instances the joystick and programming control everything. The script never sticks to a consistent rule and the characters seem not to be concerned about it.

Then it gets even crazier! The Mad Hatter breaks from the laws of determinism — even going so far as to find and alter code — and is the bad guy. Is he God at that point? Why deal with other characters at all? His crime was vanity that led to the “ultimate death” of characters but isn’t his the most compelling motivation? Isn’t he Dostoyevsky’s dream protagonist, wielding the hammer to destroy the crystal city of bullshit illusions of free will?

Here’s the question that comes out of all of this: is this ultimately a “stay in your lane” movie? Everybody goes back to doing their job. Because … that’s what they do. Nobody plays with the code again. They just follow their path and hope not to die. This movie is about all of us. I’m lonely.

DW: Are you making fun of me now??! Or am I supposed to debate this?

We’re all lonely. That’s why we go to children’s movies about video games when we don’t have children. Errrr. Maybe that says more about our generation of men being perpetually adolescent. Especially if I’m now whining that I want MORE from my cartoons movies!

JO: You’re supposed to bask in the brilliance of my critical acumen … and worry that you are being made fun of.

Do you really buy that perpetual adolescence thing? People have been bringing that out since the 70s like it’s a new phenomena. I actually think our generation grows up rather quickly, as long as you use markers that plumb a little deeper than marriage, kids and a house.

As for what we expect of our cartoon movies, cartoons have always endeavored to please multiple age-groups simultaneously (well, at least cartoons that aren’t made in the Teletubbies school of children’s entertainment wherein we appease young potential-crying-things with shiny things and bullshit babbling) and we should count ourselves lucky to be in a time where we can expect existential continuity in our cartoons and children’s movies. This movie falls short there, but delivers where it matters most — the aforementioned heart strings. I’m lonely.

DW: I KNEW it. Everyone is always making fun of me!!! I guess the difference between then and now is that when I was younger I’d tell my mom I was being made fun of, and now I just tell everyone I know that the person talking shit about me isn’t cool anymore. You know: like middle school (adulthood).

I don’t buy into the “perpetual adolescence” thing to the extent that saying people act like children into adulthood shouldn’t be owned by any particular generation (regardless of how many video games they play at thirty). We’re all bitchy little kids and I feel the most bitchy when I try to have the simplest escape from reality and that escape sucks. This isn’t Lincoln. This isn’t a heady Werner Herzog film. This is a cartoon. It should be funny and touching but it wasn’t. It was hacky and I was bored. So you’re right. I won’t be ashamed! Cartoons are for me too! It’s like the end of Sullivan’s Travels when he realizes the only time everyone enjoyed themselves was when they were watching Mickey Mouse and laughing. If I really take that movie to heart, I should be holding cartoons to the highest level of criticism. I take it all back. There’s no hyperbole in this statement: this movie ruined my life. I’m so lonely.

You’re brilliant, and we SHOULD take the time to pick apart this film’s existential questions: Toy Story 3 brought up questions of what it means to live in a free, happy society under a tyrant Teddy Bear, and I thought maybe Wreck-It Ralph would go that direction with the mock-TSA-customs guy turning evil or instituting arbitrary rules to protect gamers, but instead he was just a dweeb.

I guess if the whole thing is about breaking with conformity, video games are a fun place to explore that, but where were the funny observations about evil bosses repeating the same moves? Where was the terror of the chef in Burger Time not knowing how to cook Vegan meals?! Why are his ingredients attacking him? This would have been funny, but instead we arrived at the statement: Kids like candy. Some kids don’t fit in. Your weaknesses are actually strengths. That has nothing to do with gaming! Gaming is all about learning the shortcuts and repeating the same patterns quickly until you’re the fastest, most dexterous player. Now that I think about it, aside from a small number of games, gamers are not creating anything artistic by playing, but merely conforming. Becoming a diligent part of the machine. The rails ride upon us! I’m cold and frightened.

JO: Let’s never watch movies ever again.

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