(Some spoilers follow.)
Wreck-It Ralph should be viewed as less a movie than a cultural artifact of the early 21st century. It is not a bad movie, by any means. Its construction is sound, its technical ability accomplished, its celebrity voice casting surprisingly successful (I typically find Sarah Silverman grating, but here, no longer able to just be as obviously "offensive" as possible, she is refreshingly spunky). On entertainment grounds, it is largely successful. But far more interesting than how funny it is (quite, and quite often), is the way it trades on its audience's knowledge of video games, and depends on video game characters and iconography for its effect. So completely reliant is it that, regardless of its merits as popcorn cinema, it functions less as an independent cultural entity than as a milestone in postmodern cross-corporate artistry.
The contours of the story are deceptively familiar. In the games of Litwak's Arcade, all the characters live in a world unto themselves. The villain of Fix-It Felix Jr., Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) spends his days smashing windows that Felix (Jack McBrayer) repairs in order to eventually save the building's tenants, who throw Ralph off the building at the end. Tired of always being the villain and having to live in the dump, Ralph abandons his game one day to try to win a Hero's Medal in alien invasion first-person shooter Hero's Duty. In doing so, he crash lands in a candy-themed racing game called Sugar Rush, bringing with him one of the nasty, reproducing bugs from Hero's Duty. In the process he raises the ire of Sugar Rush's King Candy (Alan Tudyk) and Hero's Duty Sergeant Tamora Calhoun (Jane Lynch). He then enlists glitchy exiled racer Vanellope von Schweetz (Silverman), to win him a medal in a race so he can get back to his own game before the arcade owner decides it's irreparably out of order without him and has it unplugged and taken away.
The scenario is classic Pixar, even though this is a Disney film. Toy Story was about the secret world of toys, A Bug's Life the secret world of bugs, Monsters, Inc....You get the picture. Yet rather than these films, Wreck-It Ralph shares a far stronger kinship with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, a film which also used the storytelling grammar and tropes of video games to an unprecedented degree, but even then just as a filter for an otherwise grounded love story. Ralph is about video games, period, and to its end enlists an array of cameos spanning the past thirty years of video games, from Q*bert to Pac Man to Street Fighter to Sonic the Hedgehog to Super Mario Brothers and beyond, with homages to other games not mentioned by name. To understand the difference between this and the Pixar pictures, imagine if, rather than just Mr. Potato Head and Etch-a-Sketch, Andy's room in Toy Story was populated with Stretch Armstrong, Transformers, G.I. Joe, He-Man, and other such brand names. That would have been distracting at best--but here it's vital, not just to the world of the movie, but also to its humor and themes.
Nor is it simply a crass toy commercial, not the way the actual Transformers cartoon was all those years ago, but neither is it a self-contained product. A look into the 'universe' of video games would simply not be convincing without being populated by authentic video game characters, every one of them worth millions of dollars and owned by media giants. A good case could be made that 20 years after Super Mario Brothers: The Movie, the reason there are no great films based directly on a video game is that the characters are too tied to the companies that own them, and they exist solely to sell products, the games themselves, that make those companies money.
And it's not just characters that are being licensed here. An assortment of brand names appear, in all manner of capacities. A close-up shot of a Subway cup is the most blatant and annoying; embedded far deeper in the movie's being are Oreos, which are the subject of a gigglingly obvious Wizard of Oz pun, and Mentos and "Diet Cola," on which a training montage and the movie's climactic action scene are inextricably tied. As with the game characters, the product-placement so completely sublimates the mise en scene that the two become bound, the art as vehicle for the ad, the ad as vehicle for the art.
It's all very entertaining, in the way that inside jokes are very entertaining to knowing insiders. (The movie is rotten with delicious candy-themed puns, which are the lowest of inside jokes, in that you only need to understand the language to understand the joke.) I'm not so much of a scrooge that I didn't enjoy myself. But still, should we not be a little depressed that every new character worth dressing up as for Halloween is now owned by some soulless mega-conglomerate?
The old criticism of Disney was that it debased classic stories and characters by reducing them to commodities. Yet in order to turn the little mermaid Ariel into a marketable Disney princess, the House of Mouse still had to create their own engaging version of a character that had existed in numerous, independently-created iterations for over 150 years. Copyright laws and media consolidation have so strangled our cultural development that our classics today are commodities, which exist and are licensed only in approved forms and tended with an eye for the bottom line. By modern laws and logic, everything that followed Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid was either intellectual property theft, or fan-fiction.
The fact of this creative corporatism--or is it corporate creativity?--affects not just the film's storytelling but also its message. By focusing and placing audience sympathies on Ralph, a "villain" who wants to be good, it presents itself as an underdog story of rebellion against a prevailing order. (Tellingly, Ralph resolves to do this in a funny scene set at an AA-styled meeting for video game villains that includes original rebel, Satan himself.) Yet games, the film's creators cannily understand, operate by rules that dictate what does and does not happen in a digital world. That's what video games are, essentially: programs made up of millions of lines of code that act as pure logic. It's a very conservative way of looking at the world that in this case happens to be true: the rules, the code, can't be changed. Thus Ralph's attempts to be a hero in the way Felix is, are doomed to fail (the code for Sugar Rush is changed as part of the machinations of the villain, a notably arbitrary plot device that is out of step with much of the rest of the film). When it comes to his world, the world of Fix-It Felix Jr., Felix will always be the hero, and Ralph will always be the villain.
One can read into this a certain reactionary strain of thinking that says things can never truly change, that the discontented ought to just be happy the prevailing order and get on with it, lest they destroy everything. It's certainly befitting a top-down hierarchical corporation with more money than God. Yet one can also hear in Ralph's final lines, in which he says that the best part of his day is just before he is thrown off the building, because it is then that he has the highest, greatest view of the arcade--one can hear in it echoes of The Myth of Sisyphus (indeed, is there anything more Sisyphean than living life according to a 'reset' button?):
I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.One must imagine Wreck-It Ralph happy.
Like The Dark Knight Rises earlier this summer, Ralph tries to split the difference in its dealing with change and the status quo--for it is not just the villains but the heroes that must live by this code (there's that word again...). Towards the end of the movie, we learn that King Candy is in fact the hero of a previous racing game, Turbo Time, who grew jealous of a new racing game that took players away from him. He invaded the game and glitched it, causing both his game and the new one to be unplugged. He then secretly installed himself in Sugar Rush and overthrew Vanellope, its queen. The putative hero was subject to the same rigid system as Ralph, a "villain." Not coincidentally is Vanellope restored to her throne, whereafter she renounces her crown in favor of "constitutional democracy," a term I'm fairly certain has never been used in a Disney animated movie until now. Democracy, of course, is the quintessence of 'splitting the difference,' which seems to be the essence of the message the film is trying to impart. America's brand of democracy today goes hand-in-hand with the kind of pervasively entrenched corporatism I was talking about earlier, and so the circle is complete: corporate art encourages corporate democracy encourages corporate art.
Wreck-It Ralph is thus as much about its own nature as a vehicle of the postmodern zeitgeist, as it is about video games and how they drive the zeitgeist itself. I hasten to add that this postmodernism, this collapsing and subverting of the old definitions, cuts both ways. It's not just that rather than art becoming commercialized, our commercials are becoming art. Twenty years ago, my seven year-old self was allowed to watch Disney movies but not to rip someone's heart out of their chest in Mortal Kombat. Now a Disney movie marketed to seven year-olds includes a scene with Mortal Kombat baddie Kano ripping the heart out of a zombie. It's very funny in the context of the movie, but broadly speaking, not so much. Game Over, man.