Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Thoughts on "Wreck-It Ralph"


This isn't a "thoughts on upcoming animation" sort of thing, since I'm finished with that. This isn't a series either, this is basically my thoughts on a certain upcoming animated film that doesn't have any trailer out. Today I'll be focusing on Walt Disney Animation Studios' next animated feature, Wreck-It Ralph, which will be #52 in the animated feature "canon". It is supposed to hit theaters this autumn, on November 2nd.

Wreck-It Ralph tells the story of... Well... Wreck-It Ralph. Who is Wreck-It Ralph? He's a gigantic man who is the villain of a 1980s (arcade) video game named Fix-It Felix Jr. His life? Wrecking big buildings. A little hero's job is to fix the buildings Ralph has destroyed. Basically it's similar the original Donkey Kong arcade game from 1981, a little guy vs. a big brute. Instead being the bad guy, Ralph wants to prove that he can be a good guy. Ralph travels through several elaborate video games to defeat a threat that he ultimately started.

The story sounds interesting, and it's definitely unlike anything Disney's animation studio has tackled. It's not an adaptation of a fairy tale or a classic novel. It's an original idea, much like one of their more recent films, Bolt. This story is more akin to Tron than anything else. This story screams "ambitious". A family-friendly adventure comedy about video games? Well, if Tron: Legacy worked, so could this. Looking at the whole plot and the details from last summer's D23 expo, it seems like a lot of effort was put into the storyline.

A few comparisons have been made to Illumination's Despicable Me and DreamWorks' Megamind, since Wreck-It Ralph is the bad guy who wants to be the good guy. If you look at the story, however, it's different. If it's similar to any of the two, it's Megamind, since Megamind himself creates a hero to fight after finishing off his rival. The hero ultimately turns into a threat. On the other hand, this story is more interesting because I felt that, despite a few impressive moments, Megamind didn't go all out. It was a rather restrained superhero spoof that tried a little too hard to be serious, although I appreciate the effort on the behalf of DreamWorks. At least they were trying to tell a story here. Given Disney's good track record as of late (Bolt, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Winnie the Pooh), it's possible that this film will have a great story, great characters and good writing. Why wouldn't it?

We don't know if Disney went all out with this story or not. They would have to, since they have several different video games. One of which is "Hero's Duty", a sort of science fiction shooter game with enemies called Cy-Bugs. Another video game in the story is "Sugar Land", a bright and colorful Mario Kart meets Candy Land world. That's what we know so far. What we also know is that several video game villains will have cameos in the film. Among the cameos are Bowser, Dr. Robotnik, a Pac-Man ghost, Dr. Wily from Mega Man, Kano from Mortal Kombat and Coily the snake from Q*Bert. It's obviously that the crew is taking this project seriously. Apparently, Kano pulls his classic Mortal Kombat fatality on someone in the film. Hard PG rating? Maybe? Or will it be implied?

So what have we got so far? A story that's unlike anything else in a Disney animated film, well known video game characters making cameos, ambition, and various video game settings. There's a lot that we don't know. Will the animation change styles as the film progresses? Will the different video game lands have a different style of animation? We've seen art shifts in Disney films before, especially in the more recent films. We had the "Barking at the Moon" scene in Bolt, where the trio's travels are illustrated through a flat art style for the US map in addition to the painterly look they used for the film's backgrounds. The "Almost There" scene from The Princess and the Frog is done in an Art Deco/Harlem Renaissance style. Winnie the Pooh has the "Backson Song" scene where everything looks like it was drawn on a chalkboard. Will Wreck-It Ralph have this too?

Just think about it. One minute, everything looks like an 8-bit video game. Then the next minute it's really good computer animation. Then next minute, everything is hand-drawn or done in a less realistic style. Imagine that, an animated film with so many art shifts. (which is what TV Tropes calls them) That could make the film worth seeing, even if the story is flimsy or the writing isn't up to par.

Who is working on the film? Rich Moore, who has directed several episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama (which already reminds me of the episode "Anthology of Interest II" which featured a segment where the world is like a video game, Moore wrote "Anthology of Interest I"), is a fabulous choice. Having never directed an animated feature before, who knows how his leap to a feature-length film will be. From what I've heard about the film's first five minutes, it looks like he's going to put a lot of adult humor in this. Adult humor that works. A PG rating is guaranteed, something the Disney animated features rarely get. (Tangled didn't deserve that PG rating if you ask me, ditto Home on the Range) The producer is Clark Spencer, who produced Lilo & Stitch, Bolt and Winnie the Pooh. He was also an executive producer for Meet the Robinsons. John Lasseter is of course the executive producer of the film. The cast includes John C. Reilly, Jane Lynch, Jack McBrayer, Sarah Silverman and Jamie Elman. While these people have comedy backgrounds, they can still work wonders. It just depends on how good the screenplay is, along with the story.

About that... The last few Disney animated films have received positive reviews. Meet the Robinsons is a slight exception, but that's because that film was produced when Michael Eisner stepped down as CEO, Robert Iger took his place, and Lasseter rejuvenated Walt Disney Animation Studios. Still, it has a 66% on Rotten Tomatoes. I believe it got those reviews because the first half of the film is out of control, whereas the second half feels like a Pixar film. Well-written, heartfelt and devoid of anything that doesn't ruin the flow of the story.

Everything else has gotten very good reviews. Bolt's charm and simplicity, along with its likable characters, won itself great reviews. The Princess and the Frog got good reviews as most critics felt it was a very good return to hand-drawn animation and the Disney musical format. Tangled was very entertaining, thus it got great reviews. Winnie the Pooh may have been a box office flop, but got extremely positive reviews. With a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, it stands higher than the recent crop. Will Wreck-It Ralph continue this streak? I'd say a big maybe, if the storytellers at Disney offer an engaging story with great characters. Why? Films based on video games or films about video gaming usually don't have any of that. Disney's own Tron: Legacy was criticized for being a cold, hollow film that lacked a strong story and great characters. All Wreck-It Ralph needs is likable characters, a great story and heart. It doesn't need to be a love story or anything, but still, the film has to have characters that you root for. Disney can still aim for fun action and spectacle, but they can also tell a very good story at the same time.

Why am I rooting for Wreck-It Ralph so much? The answer: It's a big risk. A HUGE risk. I love it when Disney takes risks, and pulls them off.

Wreck-It Ralph, to me, is a risk along the lines of Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet. Both of those films had a more sci-fi/fantasy-like tone and boasted pulse-pounding blockbuster action. Animation is perfect for this kind of thing, but unfortunately, those two films fell short of their ambitions. Atlantis: The Lost Empire was originally envisioned as a Jules Verne-styled adventure film (and Disney has tackled Verne before, with the masterful 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954, In Search of the Castaways in 1961 and The Island at the Top of the World in 1974) with tons of battles with monsters. It was going to be an epic 2-hour adventure film, and it showed that directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale wanted to break away from the Disney formula that plagued the 1990s films.

It would've been perfect, coming off of The Emperor's New Groove, a film that mocked the studio's own formula. (In return, that poorly-marketed film turned out to be a sleeper hit of sorts) Shirts that said "Less Songs. More Explosions." were worn by the crew during production. This was shaping up to be one of Disney's most ambitious, non-formulaic projects yet. Something Walt would've made. What happened? Well, Disney Animation was dictated by executives. Several cuts were made, and the story turned out to be a mess. It couldn't appeal to critics, family audiences or adults. It was perceived as too violent for kids (naturally, given the attitudes towards Disney and most animation in general) and too juvenile for kids over 13 years old, because the film wasn't mature enough for "them".

Treasure Planet's story was stronger, but the characters weren't as likable as the ones in Atlantis. While some of the characters (John Silver, Doppler) were likable, the others were either okay or just uninteresting. You also had the typical annoying sidekick. (B.E.N.) Treasure Planet and Atlantis suffer from what I like to call the Titan A.E. syndrome. That 2000 Don Bluth film was aimed at preteen boys who normally shun animated films as kids' stuff, with its sci-fi tone and blockbuster-style action. The film received mixed reviews, but it bombed at the box office. Atlantis managed to gross $84 million stateside, but it still underperformed. Treasure Planet went on to become one of Disney's biggest box office bombs, although it did very well on home video.

How come that couldn't at least take in $50 million? Well, a terrible choice of release date (Disney has a love for picking bad dates to release their animated films) and poor marketing killed it. I remember when I saw the trailer for it at the age of 9 back in early 2002 or so. I was not interested. With Jim Hawkins flying around on his solar surfer, I felt that the movie was trying too hard to be "awesome!" and "kewl!" When I saw it for the first time not too long ago, I really liked it. I wasn't too fond of the story or how they handled the character development, but the ambition and the incredible visuals make it worthwhile.

Wreck-It Ralph is similar to these two films, but it most likely won't be plagued with the problems that plagued them. Those films were produced when Disney executives had their way. Read up on all the horror stories. A love song called "If I Never Knew You" being cut from Pocahontas because kids at test screenings got antsy, the decision to throw comic relief into something dark and adult like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the various cuts done to Lilo & Stitch (not counting the revised final chase scene, they had a good reason for altering that) and the butchering of Atlantis... The list goes on. Now that the Eisner era is over, Walt Disney Animation Studios' artists and storytellers don't have to worry about this. No more pandering to kids, no attempts to make the film more appealing to younger audiences. They're following Walt Disney's footsteps, creating great films for all ages without having to pander to any particular audience.

This is why the recent output is superior to a majority of the films released in the last 15 years. I'll take Bolt, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Winnie the Pooh over Dinosaur, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear and Home on the Range any day. Still, fascinating work shines through in these films. Look past the executive meddling and you'd be surprised. Now we're in an era where we don't have to look past that. I have a feeling that Wreck-It Ralph could be the first ambitious Disney animated film that will work, because no executives will be sticking their spoons into the broth. Disney hasn't made a risky, ambitious film that worked for a while. Now the time has come...

So if the film turns out to be a risky, ambitious film that delivers, will it be a box office hit? Bolt, The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh got great reviews. Bolt had a small opening weekend, but pulled a good-sized multiplier and crept past $110 million domestically. The Princess and the Frog performed similarly. Winnie the Pooh came and went, grossing only $30 million domestically making it one of Disney's least-attended animated films of all time if not the lowest. Yet it was a very good film. What happened? How come these films couldn't clear $150 million domestically? $200 million?

Bolt was poorly marketed. I remember when they played the trailer before WALL-E in the summer of 2008. I thought it looked horrible (part of me was angry that Chris Sanders' original American Dog concept had to go), not to mention the marketing department felt the need to advertise John Travolta and Miley Cyrus' names on the poster as if it were a DreamWorks film. Miley Cyrus' character isn't in it that much. If they wanted to promote the two leads, they should've promoted Susie Essman. Mittens was a much more important character. Oh, and people know who Susie Essman is. It's not like she's an unknown. They promoted Cyrus because they probably felt that the Hannah Montana crowd would race to see the film. Pandering. Not the film itself, but the marketing. It was a combination of bad blunders that caused that film to score such a low opening, losing to the inferior Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa during the holiday season. The Princess and the Frog was released right before James Cameron's Avatar along with tough competition like Sherlock Holmes and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel (which probably stole the film's family audiences), and the marketing made it look like a lame revival of the Disney Renaissance. Seriously, the marketing was terrible! Tangled's was even worse, but yet that film was a hit. At least the marketing was a little more energetic and in your face. Winnie the Pooh was barely promoted. It was thrown into a battlefield that included the final Harry Potter film, Captain America: The First Avenger and The Smurfs. Okay, maybe the stuffed bear wouldn't make $150 million, but it could've been a small sleeper hit! Disney blew it. Again.

With no teaser for Wreck-It Ralph out, or any marketing, I fear that this will be another underperformer. If it underperforms, Disney might can any ambitious projects. Frozen, Disney's Snow Queen project, was thought to be a hand-drawn film. Apparently, Frog and Pooh's performances probably convinced them that no one cares for hand-drawn animation anymore. People do care for hand-drawn animation. You have to make them care! Better marketing, come on! The Princess and the Frog had strong legs that carried it to $100 million. It could've made twice that amount if it had a better opening weekend, but no, marketing held it back.

I fear that this will happen to Wreck-It Ralph. It's already a hard sell, and a lot of hard work went into it like any good animated film, and with some very good trailers, they can get people interested. This should be an event that everyone will want to see, like any good Disney film. If they market it the same way they did with the last few films, then it will underperform. Less than $150 million won't satisfy Disney. They can't be blamed, right? Right?! Audiences didn't like the films! That's why they didn't do well! This is why Disney's films aren't doing well. The same goes for their live action output. (Must I bring up John Carter's horrendous marketing?) They'll promote the hell out of Pixar's films, but how come they can't do the same for their animated films? Their big budget live action films?

Anyways, before this turns into a Disney marketing rant, I will say this: If Wreck-It Ralph turns out to be a great film that exceeds expectations but it doesn't do well, I won't be happy. This won't spell a good future for Disney animation, they'll play it safe after that. While I'm very happy with the recent output, some of it feels a little too safe. This film doesn't look safe at all, and while I can't make any judgments, I have high hopes for this film. This is the ambitious blockbuster Disney has been waiting for. We need the marketing campaign to kick off now, before it's too late. If Disney were smart, they'd give us the first trailer before The Avengers. Being a Disney release, and being a film that's sure to clear $300 million at the domestic box office, attaching the trailer could bring things off to a great start. That is, if the trailer is any good. Maybe they'll wait until Brave comes out. Maybe not, but they better get the word out soon.

What are your thoughts on this upcoming film? Do you think it looks good? Or do you think it looks like an absolute turkey? When do you think the first trailer will debut? Do you think it will be a success? Sound off!

2 comments:

  1. I think it will be an excellent movie especially since I have an unhealthy video game addiction.

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  2. I think Wreck-It Ralph has the potential to be a great film. What small amount of marketing we've seen appears to show they 'get' the video game culture. The mock-up Fix-It Felix Jr cabinet and demo they made for D23 nails the feel of the era of video gaming it's supposed to represent perfectly. I grew up in the 80s playing arcade games, and it would have fit right in.

    Since I'm a huge gaming fan and cameos for characters from some of my favorite series have already been confirmed I'll be seeing it opening day. The lack of information and marketing does trouble me. Less than 7 months to release and not even a teaser trailer.

    I haven't been this excited over a movie since Toy Story 3, and not for a non-Pixar Disney movie since The Lion King.

    DAMMIT DISNEY, DO NOT SCREW THIS ONE UP!

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