Friday, November 9, 2012

Disney's 8-Bit Hero

The following review is spoiler-heavy...

“Sure must be nice being the good guy...”

So laments the colossal Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), the antagonist of a 1982 arcade game called Fix-It Felix, Jr., to other villains from other video games in an alcoholics anonymous-style meeting called “Bad Anon”. But he’s not really a mean rival to the game’s titular hero (voiced by Jack McBrayer), it’s just his job. To follow the program, to do what’s he supposed to do in his game like everyone else.

Yes indeed, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 52nd film looks at video games from a Toy Story perspective: What do those characters do once the arcade closes?

This particular Fix-It Felix, Jr. arcade game is housed within Litwak’s Family Fun Center, a good-sized arcade that remained in business for over thirty years (if only more arcades existed in the United States). When the day’s work is done, the various game characters hang out in Game Central Station, which is inside the arcade’s power strip.

Fix-It Felix, Jr. takes place in a quaint and pleasant little city called Niceland. The good people live in a big red brick apartment building, one Ralph wrecks. Why? His home used to be there, a mere tree stump. A sprightly little hero named Fix-It Felix, Jr. undoes his wreckage with a golden magical hammer that fixes the mess in a flash. The object of the game is to fix the building. When the game is conquered, Felix gets a nice medal and the Nicelanders collectively throws Ralph off the building and into a mud pit. He spends every night in a dump. Being the bad guy is Ralph’s job, but the smaller occupants of his game’s big apartment building ostracize him. They don’t invite him to the game’s 30th anniversary party, nor are they nice to him when he shows up anyway.

Fix-It Felix, Jr. himself is a little more sympathetic towards the big brute. Ralph sees how he gets medals and all the love, and he wishes, just for once, to get that kind of respect. He sees more to life than just programming, though he is warned by Mortal Kombat villain Kano (who even shows us his classic fatality move) to not mess with the program. He is warned not to “go turbo”. The impatient Mayor of Niceland, Gene, only drives Ralph to prove himself. You ultimately feel for this character very early on, he just wants to be treated fairly despite being a building-destroying goliath.

It’s your basic “bad guy wants to be good” story, and you might be saying "That's too much like Despicable Me and Megamind." Not really. Wreck-It Ralph has what those two 2010 animated films didn’t have. Despicable Me, as far as I’m concerned, is really nothing more than a cuddly, fun little entertainer with lots of laughs and a decent story. It’s really nothing beyond that. Megamind? A superhero spoof that also tries on that story, except it doesn’t go any higher than it should and is ultimately stuck in a rather bland screenplay. Gru is established as a big supervillain in Despicable Me, same with Megamind. Ralph is programmed to be the bad guy, something he can't change.

The film is far more passionate. Ralph not only wants to be a good guy because he feels left out, but he's also going to go against the program. Being a story about video games, the writers and creative team don’t back away from accuracy. They didn’t want a trivial film that only had generalizations about video games, they wanted something accurate. A love letter, much like Cars. Most of the games in Litwak’s are real, but the fictional ones like Fix-It Felix, Jr. look like they would not be out of place in an arcade in the 1980s. Accurate, accurate, accurate. You could only imagine how happy I was to see arcade video games portrayed realistically in an animated film. Beforehand, only Toy Story’s arcade heaven Pizza Planet came close.

None of the video game-centric humor is cheap either. I mean, it is a story about video games, why not have that kind of humor? To complain about that seems pointless, it only adds to the atmosphere. The cameos are there for a reason as well, as many have pointed out the Who Framed Roger Rabbit connection. We see tons of cameos from the big ones: Pac-Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, Frogger, Bowser, Dr. Robotnik, Zangief, Bison, Clyde... We also get to see characters and games that may not be as famous. I was beyond happy to see games such as RoadBlasters and Burger Time get referenced in some way.

What really dragged me towards this story was the whole idea of an 8-bit game character. As a kid, I loved the minimalism of retro video games and still do to this day. There’s something about them that can’t be beat. I’d always buy compilations of arcade classics, and went through a phase where I looked up lists upon lists of arcade games that were released from the 1970s until the 1990s. I played numerous collections from Namco, Atari and Midway. I took a great interest in the NES and SNES era, as I mostly grew up being familiar with PlayStation and Nintendo 64, though I had an NES when I was very young.

Being a writer of original stories in my spare time, I often gravitated towards retro games for ideas, ones that never took off. When I first saw the Futurama episode “Anthology of Interest II” (director Rich Moore was animation director of both The Simpsons and Futurama), I got more and more into the idea. That episode presented what life would be like if the world was a video game, with parodies of real game characters. The retro game idea is one I tend to go back to, but a Disney animated film covering that ground got me excited. Disney, of all studios.

When we look at the Disney animated classics from the last twenty-five years, we know the fairy tales, the talking animals films, the big sweeping musicals and the occasional radical experiments like Atlantis: The Lost Empire or Lilo & Stitch. Wreck-It Ralph is more akin to those films, being something that’s out of the current comfort zone for Disney. Disney succumbed to a formula after the success of The Little Mermaid, thanks to a strict business model that stifled creativity in favor of consumer products sales. Whenever they’d make a film like Atlantis and Stitch, it would seem odd because audiences were used to “Disney status quo”.

But John Lasseter and the crew know that sticking to the formula was what hurt Disney animation, along with heavy executive interference. This is why everything after the regime change at Disney in 2005 is a significant improvement over most of the work that preceded it. Bolt shocked many who weren’t expecting it to be a halfway decent film, and The Princess and the Frog and Tangled pull some twists on the familiar fairy tale grounds. Walt Disney Animation Studios is now basically like Pixar, they are free from corporate power controlling them. What’s their duty? Make films that’ll last for generations that appeal to both the young and old.

After a few films that covered tried territories, Wreck-It Ralph coming so soon came as a bit of a shock to me. This was a dream come, Disney was finally branching out and doing what they should’ve done two decades ago, but the right way. I was confident that it wouldn’t turn out to be a meddled mess like Atlantis and Treasure Planet. It would be one that had a great story, heart and left you satisfied. Wreck-It Ralph was just that, and then some.

The video game angle makes it unique amongst its animated brethren, even outside of Disney. While most mainstream animation goes for talking animal romps or a tired re-imagining of something we grew up with, Wreck-It Ralph dares to give audiences something different, something creative. Isn’t that what Disney animation should be all about? I think so. Why in the world did Walt Disney try different things with each of his films.

It's great because we live in a world where the family animated feature isn't exclusive to just one studio, and Disney happened to fall under not only due to their problems during the Eisner regime, but the fact that what they were cooking up didn't look entirely original. Chicken Little did expectedly good, but Meet the Robinsons came off as derivative when it came out, ditto Bolt, despite the fact that they turned out good. Wreck-It Ralph differentiates itself from the likes of Sony Animation and Blue Sky's films and other non-Pixar and DreamWorks animated competition.

Wreck-It Ralph is visually one of Disney’s most creative films. I could write a book on how much I loved this film in terms of the look. Everything just screams “wow”. In this film, we are presented with three sprawling video game worlds and a cast of characters that is just as colorful.

The first of which is Fix-It Felix, Jr., with its black sky, simplistic building architecture and minimalist character designs, it does look like a 1980s video game if it were reality. Early on, I was actually wondering if Disney were to tell the Felix portions of the story in 8-bit animation entirely, but that would probably be more of a novelty than a good storytelling device. As such, I was actually pleased with how they ended up portraying this world. All the Nicelanders move like 8-bit game characters, whereas Felix and Ralph, not so much.

Hero’s Duty is easily one of the darkest and coldest environments in a Disney animated film. It obviously spoofs Halo, Gears of War and numerous sci-fi first-person shooters, and they even mix Tron: Legacy’s look into it as well. Skrillex’s thumping soundtrack is a suitable backdrop for this game, something I wasn’t expecting to actually prefer. It rightfully clashes with the two other worlds we see. The rough-n-tough Sergeant Calhoun (voiced perfectly by a no-nonsense Jane Lynch) looks like your typical video game character in this day and age, and would be out of place in an animated film of this caliber: She’s highly realistic, but yet the Disney animators still make her look like a caricature. Now that’s an accomplishment right there. The game’s enemies, the parasitic Cy-Bugs, are nice to look at and have pretty cool designs. The architecture is mostly metallic and unattractive, but intentionally so.

Sugar Rush, where the bulk of the film takes place, is loud and colorful. Pretty much everything in this world is a sweet of some sorts. The audience watching the races? All kinds of goodies. The architecture and the overall design of this place is extremely creative, every visual gag that rolls out in front of you is a nice surprise. Sure, they may lend themselves to some take-it-or-leave-it jokes and puns, but the amount of work here is very satisfying. From the dense candy cane forests to the chilly ice cream mountains, it’s literally eye candy, and that pun is shamelessly intended!

But enough chit-chat about the visuals, let’s just put it this way, it’s a Disney animated film. Of course it’s going to look good! Now how about that story? Wreck-It Ralph’s story does smack of familiarity, and some moments are ones we’ve seen done before in other animated films, though these said moments aren’t done worse. That didn’t bother me, though it does detract from the story a bit. What I cared about most was the characters, and how the screenplay effectively showed its heart.

Like I said earlier, you immediately care for Ralph, who is no flesh-and-blood being but just a virtual entity. All these characters are just great, I loved them. Fix-It Felix, Jr. is the toast of the town in his game, but what I liked about him was that he wasn’t cocky and self-centered. He wasn’t an upstart, he genuinely cared for Ralph and it did show in the first act of the film. He wasn’t so mean to him like everyone else, he struck me as the kind of person who needed to satisfy those who love him while not hurting the guy they don’t like.

Sergeant Calhoun is great, she’s rough, she has a metallic exterior and doesn’t mess around. Felix immediately takes a liking to her and the high definition of her face, and their romance is played for laughs until the end. The tragic-but-hilarious wedding backstory was a nice bonus as well. Then there’s Vanellope von Schweetz (voiced by a hyperactive Sarah Silverman), the obligatory cute character and at times I was worried: Will she be the annoying, wisecracking sidekick? Will she be the one to keep kids laughing, going against the mood of the story? Luckily, no, she isn’t.

She’s simply an outcast, though she doesn’t let it get to her, as seen in her playful but mischievous attitude towards Ralph early on. In fact, her role in the story is incredibly important, which shocked me. She is the unfortunate victim of the film’s main villain. All the other racers in the game treat her terribly, she lives alone and she isn’t allowed to race. Why? She is the game’s glitch, something to be shunned. Now this where the heart begins to ooze, in a typical Disney fashion.

The ruler of Sugar Rush, the pompous and corrupt King Candy (voiced flamboyantly by Alan Tudyk), is hiding something. He was once the title star of an arcade game called Turbo Time, which would soon be overshadowed by Atari’s RoadBlasters (I was so happy to see that game get referenced). He went to that game, and trouble ensued. Mr. Litwak eventually got rid of what he perceived was a malfunctioning game. We are told about Turbo halfway through the film, which explains why Ralph’s game jumping is hazardous to the entire arcade.

Oddly enough, when we first see the Turbo Time machine, it heavily resembles the Namco game Rally-X. I thought it was at first, but saw that the name was different, so I was a bit confused. But take a look at the US cabinet artwork for the 1980 game. It's really cool to see the film referencing the games that aren't what you immediately think of when it comes to the early 1980s.

That being said, what I liked about this villain was that he was already a selfish jerk to begin with. In fact, I was rather surprised when they revealed that he was Turbo during the final act climax. He goes from a mean-spirited pinhead to a menace, as he tries to kill Vanellope in the film's climax. Turbo's design is also kind of unsettling. In his 8-bit form, he has emotionless eyes that stare into your soul (literally) and his grin... He's somewhat creepy because of this. When we see him in his real form, he's pale and he looks like someone gave him black eyes and bleached his skin. When he takes on the form of a Cy-Bug hybrid, it gets even more interesting.

That’s another subplot that keeps the story going, Ralph inadvertently brings a Cy-Bug into Sugar Rush that lays eggs which ultimately make the climax ten times more hectic. Best of all, we don’t know why Turbo has it out for Vanellope until the ending. It's another case where everything we know all locks together at the end. But what happens between Ralph’s game jumping and the reveal of King Candy’s schemes is no disappointment. Felix and Calhoun search for the Cy-Bugs, while Ralph gets to know more about Vanellope and ultimately attempts to help her race. The relationship between the two is semi-brother/sister handled perfectly. Vanellope is a bit obnoxious, but she really does have a heart under that snarky attitude. Not once does the film really slow down, so the second act carefully balances Ralph and Vanellope’s scenes with Felix and Calhoun’s scenes. The romance between Felix and Calhoun is not only hilarious (given how unlikely it is), but it's actually believable though it is one of the more criticized aspects of the film.

In the mean time, the writers pepper everything with humor that works. There are a few candy puns here and there that were a bit cringeworthy, but others were hilarious. Vanellope is mostly funny, though she does tend to crack some potty humor a little too much, and personally, combining toilet humor with a candy-coated setting does not work in any way. Thankfully, it’s not as in-your-face as it was in Disney films like Brother Bear or the earlier DreamWorks films. Aside from that, you have all the video game cameos and the different references. So chances are, you'll laugh at something.

As such, do you have to be in the know about video games in order to enjoy it? I wouldn’t think so, because the majority of the jokes work for non-gamers and the whole concept of it alone is enough to pull you in. As I said, it’s a very creative idea, and the non-gamers who came with me to see the film with were enthralled. I get that from a lot of the critics as well, so the film is appealing whether it’s about video games or not. No matter what it’s about it, it’s the characters and the heart that are most important. Pixar proved that you can tell a story about anything, and still get the masses to go see it. Ralph is no different, it goes beyond the video game setting and can appeal to anyone.

Now with all this about the look and the feel of the film, what about the sound? Henry Jackman’s score matches each video game environment, but the whole tone of the score really does suit what’s going on. Various artists submitted different songs, too. J-pop band AKB48 contributes “Sugar Rush” to accompany the game itself (the film itself is called Sugar Rush in Japan for a good reason), and if there wasn’t a much more perfect fit for such a world, I wouldn’t know. Skrillex’s contribution adds to the loud, tech-heavy world of Hero’s Duty quite wonderfully, and this is coming from someone who normally dislikes this kind of music.

What I could’ve done without was the use of a current pop song like “Shut Up and Drive”, that’ll be dated in a decade. Pixar used contemporary selections for the Cars films, but those songs fit the setting and they won’t necessarily age. That said, it’s few and far in between in this film. Other than that, we get Kool & the Gang “Celebration” for a brief sequence, but that’s a song everyone knows that’s been around for three decades so it won’t seem dated. Owl City’s contribution, “When Can I See You Again?”, is saved for the credits. Even better is Buckner & Garcia’s “Wreck-It, Wreck-It Ralph”. When the first trailer hit earlier this year, I was wondering if “Pac-Man Fever” would get some sort of spotlight. No, they get the two that did the song to do a new one! What more could you ask for? In total, the soundtrack really shines.

The film really does get the atmosphere down pat from the look to the sound. Again, the story is nice and simple but the characters elevate it. The clever little twists and turns only add to it, making for an experience that keeps you glued to the screen. Like any animated comedy, there are going to be the jokes that could make you cringe. Even some Pixar films have this, but the best is, it’s never distracting.

Wreck-It Ralph is essentially a film done in the Disney tradition, but it’s buttered with creativity and genuine dedication. The video game elements are never cheap or half-hearted nods to gamers, they are integrated into this story which again attempts to make sure it entertains anyone who isn’t a gamer. Everything about it feels sincere, it’s made to give everyone both young and old a film they deserve. Director Rich Moore summed it up, “We can’t just tell jokes for 90 minutes. The audience really needs to connect with these characters and identify with their feelings. That’s when a film goes beyond being a movie and becomes an experience.” He went on to say, “My earliest movie-going experience was The Jungle Book. I remember it vividly, not just because it was entertaining, but because it was a great experience shared by the entire family. That’s what I want to give back to families today.”

Wreck-It Ralph is a bona fide winner, while its does have a few kinks that could’ve been ironed out, it’s a feel-good film that’s not afraid to venture out a bit. That’s the Disney I want to see in the future, and it will happen.

Now... John Kahrs’ Paperman...

When Disney first unveiled this short film, I was already impressed by the style they went for. Simplistic but complex, black and white, appropriately soft in structure... Then I realized it was going to be a blend of computer animation and traditional animation. After months of stills and a video about how that style was pulled off, finally seeing the whole seven minutes of it was an absolutely joy.

Such a simple little tale of love, yet it merits a big reaction. Truly an ethereal experience, and one that has a whimsical sincerity that’s right there in the first few frames. What I truly loved what was how the art captured a soft 1950s feel. The decision to tell this story in black and white only adds to it. Everything about it is a gem, and yes, the story itself is charming. Christophe Beck contributes a lighthearted score that complements the feel of the picture, one that immediately fires up when the short film nears its end.

This film is real proof that Walt Disney Animation Studios is capable of innovation in this day and age, and it should remind audiences that they aren’t an outmoded studio. The recent string of films alone should’ve proven this. Disney made such an incredibly wise decision to attach this work of art to Wreck-It Ralph, so everyone could see the beauty of it.

It’s getting praise all across the board, so Disney better take note of this. Animation fans are already hoping that Disney does a full-length animated film in this style. Well, back when this short film was unveiled, it was immediately suggested that the untitled hand-drawn film in development at Disney (directed by the Disney dream duo Ron Clements and John Musker) was going to be done this way. I’ve talked about it in great detail before, and yes, I would be the happiest man if they announced that the film will be done like that. I sincerely hope that it happens.

Make no mistake, Paperman is the first sign of greater things to come. The experiment totally pays off, not only will this add more creativity in a world where computer animated films dominate, it will pave a new road in animation. Perhaps more mainstream animation studios will want to emulate that and be more creative with their projects. You can say that this short was only the beginning...


1 comment:

  1. Excellent review, Kyle.

    I saw both Paperman and Wreck-It Ralph for the second time today and enjoyed them just as much as I did the first time. They really are animation jewels; Paperman blew me away just like La Luna did, and I don't think I've enjoyed an animated movie as much as I enjoyed Ralph since Toy Story 3.

    Again, great review. I always like to read your thoughts on films.