Monday, November 19, 2012

Gaming the System: "Wreck-It Ralph" (Rich Moore, 2012)

by James Hansen 

In what is surely the most welcome surprise of the cinematic year thus far, Rich Moore’s Wreck-It Ralph, the latest release from Disney Animation, ingeniously combines the central conceits of both animation and gaming into a thrilling and heartfelt animated film. Moreover, it does so with a regard to history as simultaneously an aesthetic and technological question. If Disney has lagged behind its younger brother Pixar in recent years, Wreck-It Ralph usefully shifts the dynamic back to the kind of risk-taking Disney once took and Pixar overtook before it began inundating itself with useless sequels alongside overconcentration on technique and naturalism, threatening to turn the form against itself and mutate into something “accomplished” yet hyperstatic (a la Peter Jackson). Thankfully, Moore (and co-writers Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee) allows Wreck-It Ralph to ponder where it came from and where it will go next. 

That this all works so well is in large part due to the delicate balancing act of Moore and his screenwriters. Wreck-It Ralph, a Donkey Kong like figure, is the villain of the arcade game Fix-It Felix. After 30 years on the job, Ralph, distressed by his bad guy status, goes on a mission to win a hero medal in order to be seen as a good guy and, thus, welcomed by the rest of the villagers of Fix-It Felix. Here, the rest of the games in the arcade stand-in as a networked world in which characters navigate through electric portals into other (sometimes newer) game spaces. The majority of the film takes place inside the game “Sugar Rush,” seemingly a Mario Kart version of Bratz. Here, a young girl, Vanellope, takes Ralph’s hero medal to cash in for a coveted spot in the Sugar Rush race. Vanellope, a character identified as a systematic glitch, has been banished from racing (thus the space of the actual game) by King Candy. Meanwhile, Fix-It Felix teams up with a Halo-esque female commander, Calhoun, to break into “Sugar Rush” and bring Ralph back before the arcade manager says game-over for the game, unplugging it from the network, leaving homeless characters wandering the portal.

Though this falls into a familiar story of outsider characters finding their place within their changing worlds, Wreck-It Ralph approaches this with a supreme tenderness as it slides between the worlds and the characters come to realize their outdatedness, their glitchy quirks, and their inability to assimilate with their coded, networked spaces. Making ongoing references to strictly defined game code as something to overcome, there remains a tension between the character’s desires and their technological constraints. Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t quite go all the way with its aesthetic – the old, 8-bit game characters are more natural inside their game space and, therein, more alike other characters than different. (This is something of a practical question, as it is unlikely anyone would respond to 8-bit, talking characters versus more natural ones, but it really would have been something if Moore and company would have tried and fully committed to the aesthetic question, actually allowing for the 8-bit world and the modern game world to collide. Can’t have it all...) 

 Nonetheless, the films remains reticent to updating and regenerating as a means of staying alive. Here, Wreck-It Ralph picks up where Enchanted left off. Whereas Enchanted negotiated the ambivalence between reality and fantasy, the real world versus the princess, the two-dimension versus the three-dimension (see my full Enchanted review for more on this), Wreck-It Ralph operates within this interstitial space, brilliantly conceived as a gaming question, where the villain manipulates code to deny the avatars freedom – the very thing that “avatars” supposedly provide the user. This doesn’t suggest, as one may think, that the coded game is seen as pure, manipulable loss, hence reiterating the old analog versus digital, but rather is an embrace of the glitch, of the code as something which can break down, of the individual who embraces assimilation (or, at least, connection) through difference.

Thus, Wreck-It Ralph denies the input/output logic of the coded network and looks instead for a territorializing glitch which can code, de-code, and re-code. The character Vanellope is key here. Befriending both the destructive forces of Ralph and reconstructive help of Felix, she builds, breaks, and rebuilds her car, her code, and herself. Wreck-It Ralph moves through these concerns with great sincerity, delicacy, and heart. Not merely a technological game, the film packs a serious emotional punch, emotions which underly the very issues of individuality, building and rebuilding, deforming and reforming, which are at the core of the character’s (the the film’s) concerns. Moore may still be navigating an undecided space, but, here, it is one that incorporates its history – both good and bad – as it moves along to a new game. Wreck-It Ralph, you may just be our hero.

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