Is there any way to tell the difference between a Disney brand movie and a Pixar one these days? Both are adorned with John Lasseter’s name and, when one releases shameless cash-ins such as Cars 2 while the other comes up with a high concept riff on ’80s computer games, the lines are blurred further.
That said, Brave was a welcome return to original storytelling for Pixar. And, inspired as its premise is, Ralph quickly succumbs to tried-and-tested characterisation and plotting. Rich Moore makes his movie debut (he also gets a story credit, one of seven contributors), but he’s a veteran director of TV fare such as of The Simpsons and Futurama. He brings a suitably irreverent, offbeat sensibility to the material. Although he succumbs to traditional Disney/Pixar sentimentality in the final reel, there’s always the feeling that Ralph might shoot off in an unexpected direction at any given moment.
Ralph is the villain of an 8-Bit 1980s arcade game, Fix-It-Felix, Jr (not a million miles from Donkey Kong, with Ralph as Kong); he’s tired of being the bad guy, and seeing the luxurious conditions his fellow characters bask in while he’s consigned to spend the night on a pile of bricks. So he sets out to become a hero, seizing a medal from a first-person-shooter (Hero’s Duty) before arriving in the Super Mario Kart-esque Sugar Rush. There, he meets a computer glitch, Vanellope, who has dreams of racing. Unfortunately, Ralph has brought along a Cy-Bug from Hero’s Duty, which could spell doom for Sugar Rush.
Moore crams the film with references to past gaming characters, from Pacman to Sonic the Hedgehog. Q*Bert is easily the most indulged of these, and the most likeable. To be honest, I’ve never been a great gamer so many of the characters passed me by without recognition. They’re just the icing on the cake, however; as it should be.
The movie’s set up is superior to its pay-off, such is usually the case where curmudgeonly or miserable characters find redemption; the ending takes the edge off and all you are left with is, well something akin to Sugar Rush. So Ralph (an impeccably cast John C. Reilly) visiting a villain’s support group, incurring the wrath of his fellow characters at a thirtieth anniversary bash for Fix-It-Felix, Jr, and causing enormous disruption in Hero’s Duty, is carried off with a degree of anarchic aplomb. The sketching out of the gaming micro-universe has the same kind of diligence that was brought to bear on Toy Story, with clear rules for what happens when humans are no longer playing (as such, characters acting up and causing games to malfunction makes for an amusing and instantly recognisable reference point).
Once Ralph meets the (as he puts it) annoying brat Vanellope, the story settles on a much more predictable path. I’d hoped there would be a wider variety of game settings for Ralph to traverse (something akin to Looney Tunes – Back in Action’s Louvre sequence), but Moore opts to play it safe. Vanellope echoes the cutesy kid in Monsters, Inc. but with added Sarah Silverman smart-mouthiness. Clearly, we’re supposed to find her adorable but she quickly becomes a strain on my nerves. It’s the point in the film where the lessons that need to be learned come into focus, and Ralph slowly starts to lose his edge. In parallel, Felix (30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer, who is perhaps a little too recognisable; at times I felt I was listening to Kenneth) and sexy Hero’s Duty chick Tamora (Jane Lynch, also instantly identifiable) are on a romantic course as they attempt to track down Ralph and the Cy-Bug. There’s even a villainous reveal I wasn’t expecting (as in, it didn’t make a huge amount of difference and so leaves one suspecting it was the result of one story conference too many) but comes from the Pixar’s The Incredibles.
But this is still one for Disney to be proud of, if only because it diverges from the safe territory of restaged fairy tales (don’t worry, they’ve another of those coming up). The gags are sometimes a bit on the crude side (you can tell Silverman’s involved when there’s an extended poo-themed discourse), but more often quite inspired (“You hit a guy, with glasses” is especially witty). 2012 gave offered a string of good-but-not-quite-great animated features, and Ralph can be added to that pile.