In last week’s podcast, my cohosts and I discussed which recent Disney movie is the best, and I’ve gotten a lot of questions about my decision, Wreck-It Ralph, since. In an effort to make my case, here’s why the movie transcends many of its peers by the same studio.
Legendary animator Glen Keane was the original mind behind the story of Tangled, about 14 years before it was actually released.
At this point, it was still called Rapunzel, and what was about to be Disney’s first computer animated fairy tale was shut down before being rebirthed by Disney’s new hire, John Lasseter, who triumphantly returned as their chief creative officer after being fired decades earlier. The rest, including Tangled‘s massive success despite being the most expensive animated film ever made, is history.
With Tangled, Disney learned that a big gamble could pay off as long as the right creative minds were in charge of the vision. And that’s probably why they went ahead with their next risky release, Wreck-It Ralph, an animated video game movie that Disney had been trying to get off the ground since the late 80s (it was originally called Joe Jump, and then Reboot Ralph).
In fact, if any comparisons are to be made between Wreck-It Ralph and Toy Story, one can reasonably argue that this is because the concept for both films was being formulated at around the same time. It just took Wreck-It Ralph, a film about what video game characters in an arcade are doing when humans aren’t around, well over a decade to be released.
The comparisons between Wreck-It Ralph and Pixar don’t end there, as it is certainly the closest Walt Disney Animation (the studio) has ever come to delivering a computer animated movie that rivals its most prestigious studio. In fact, it’s not outrageous to say that Wreck-It Ralph surpasses some of the best animated movies in all of Disney’s pantheon.
There’s a lot to be said about how enticing the idea is that our video games (much like our toys) have worlds of their own, the way we like to imagine them. What Wreck-It Ralph does with this concept is dense, as it focuses on the inner turmoil and outer exploits of a villain programmed to be a villain, rather than the flawed hero archetype Pixar has done so well exploring with their Toy Story franchise.
Warning: spoilers for Wreck-It Ralph follow.
In a way, Ralph himself is not a villain, really. He’s nothing more than code, and the film goes out of its way to promote the concept of a “Code” that dictates much of what is out of our control. In Ralph’s case, he’s a video game villain who gets no respect (or love for that matter) from the denizens within his very own game. It’s only when he attempts a pilgrimage outside of his narrow limitations that he’s able to find a kindred spirit in a “glitch” character named Vanellope, who is also ostracized for reasons beyond her own actions.
The two of them eventually learn to live with their inherent burdens without having to escape their responsibilities, a very practical lesson for children and especially young adults confused by the collateral damage that comes with wanderlust. Rather than abandon the people who rely on you, Disney propositions that maturity and respect come from a healthy understanding of who you are in the world.
That doesn’t mean you can’t change your circumstances — Ralph certainly does this in the end by fulfilling his duties without being hated by everyone. But it does mean that your preconceived solution to problems like discontentment and loneliness may be terribly incorrect.
For Ralph, the solution to his problem wasn’t to earn someone else’s medal, it was to understand that being a villain doesn’t have to mean that people will hate him for doing his job. Vanellope assumed that winning the race would solve her problems, but it was revealed that she was, in fact, a victim of a much larger threat. Disney’s parallels here illustrate how some people are “losers” (which I don’t mean in a nerdy connotation), while others have more liberty to change their life for the better as winners. There’s no easy solution to fractured environments, but more often than not, it comes down to liking who you are in spite of how others see you
This is a tricky message, and one of Disney’s boldest, simply because it’s easy to misread the message as approval in the idea that people are free to do what they want recklessly, despite how this behavior turns out badly for Ralph. At the same time, everything works out for Ralph and his friends because he initially made mistakes, putting forth another message that bad things with good intentions can sometimes have good consequences (a clever parallel for the movie’s plot).
All of this gets to the heart of why Wreck-It Ralph is one of Disney’s most powerful films yet, but it’s accompanied by the same masterful production value that comes with the brand. It’s visually gorgeous. The action is quick and memorable. But its most impressive feat might be how well every subplot is tied together with the main story without losing the viewer’s attention. When everything comes together in Wreck-It Ralph, not a single character, detail, or even joke seems wasted.
And of course the movie is a treasure trove for video game lovers, years before Pixels would attempt the same nostalgia trick. Wreck-It Ralph graciously keeps the attention off of these jokes and references, however, in order to preserve the strength of the core characters.
Little touches throughout the movie contribute even more to the overall quality of the film. It’s amusing (and welcome) to see a young girl playing the violent Hero’s Duty while two boys aggressively fight over playing Sugar Rush. It’s a subtle reminder that some stereotypes certainly exist, and others exist to be defied. There’s nothing wrong with a young girl wearing pink, and the same goes for that girl also wanting to play a first person shooter. It coincides nicely with Vanellope stating she’d rather be a president than a princess.
Wouldn’t we all?
Wreck-It Ralph is one of my favorite Disney movies, and I enjoy how its spiritual successor, Zootopia, pushes this type of meaningful storytelling forward with similar thoughts on racism and bigotry. Frozen, too, upends a lot of superficial tropes, though that movie’s true strength comes in the trappings, not the actual gift.
For that reason, Wreck-It Ralph is Disney’s best computer animated film yet, and that probably won’t change anytime soon. Unless the upcoming sequel is somehow even better.
Do you have an unpopular opinion you want challenged? Let me know and I’ll take it on in a future Unopinionated article.
I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni