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‘Wreck-It Ralph’ Has More Candy-Related Content Than You May Have Expected [Review]

Can we all take a minute to reflect on how awesome it is that there’s a Disney movie about John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman drift-racing their way through video games that’s out right now? Seriously, that is a thing that has actually happened and not just some weird dream where fourteen things that I’m really into come together to form a major motion picture.

That said, it should be obvious that I was pretty excited when I went into Wreck-It Ralph, and on the whole, it’s a very, very enjoyable movie. But at the same time, it’s not quite the movie that you want it to be.In terms of plot, Ralph follows the same beats that you get from pretty much every other modern Disney movie: Protagonist is dissatisfied with his career and goes off to better himself, faces setbacks, has a conflict with someone that blossoms into a friendship, relapses momentarily into selfishness that causes a rift with his new friend, and then finally overcomes some obstacle with the power of friendship and returns to an improved version of his original state. Give or take one or two of those elements and it’s always the same story; it’s the trappings and execution that make it all different and interesting, and in Wreck-It Ralph, those trappings come in the form of video game references.

But the thing is, a lot of the video game stuff that caught my attention in the trailers plays out very early in the movie. The cameos from other video game characters — including a truly delightful near-soliloquy from Zangief on the nature of villainy — the shots of everyone all hanging out together, and even Ralph’s trip to other genres? All that stuff, and pretty much everything else that you saw in the trailer, gets knocked out in the first act and is over and done with by the time you get past the first half hour.

Don’t get me wrong, those bits are great. There’s a part where Ralph turns to the villain sitting next to him and says “thanks, Satan” that had me cracking up ’til there were tears in my eyes. But they’re not the focus, and as a result, the story of a movie is less about what I thought it was going to be — Ralph traveling through different video games and learning to find his place in the world — and more of a tightly focused story on Ralph and Silverman’s character, Venellope. There are really only three “games” involved: Ralph’s home of the Donkey Kong-inspired Fix-It Felix Jr., an arcade shooter crammed full of vicious “cybugs,” and Sugar Rush, the aforementioned kart racing game that ends up as the focus of a good two thirds of the film.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing by itself. The idea of a kart racing game themed around candy and desserts that comes complete with its own J-Pop theme song is actually pretty believable as the latest arcade import from Japan, and it’s obvious that the filmmakers put a lot of thought into how they could use that premise to create dynamic set pieces that would work as believable parts of that game. The problem is that they seem to have fallen in love with it a little too much.

In fact, it’s more about Venellope, who’s been exiled from the playable roster of her candy-themed kart racing game, than anything else. She’s the one that Ralph has to work with and ultimately save in order to get his own reward, and the rest of the movie takes a back seat to that. The biggest flaw is that Ralph himself has a very incidental character arc — he starts out as a nice guy that we want to see succeed, so he doesn’t go through any real changes over the course of the film — that feels like it’s used to bookend her story, rather than two disparate plot threads that really, genuinely come together.

There’s a long stretch in the middle of Wreck-It Ralph where it stops being a movie about video games, one of which is about candy, and just starts being a movie about candy. There are gags about dropping Mentos into Diet Coke and a bunch of really wearying product placement for NesQuick and Laffy Taffy that would’ve felt like awkward leftovers if they’d shown up on Adventure Time, a show that actually takes place in a kingdom made of candy. Here, they just serve to pad out the second act without actually tying into the ideas they’ve set up in the rest of the film.

It’s oddly frustrating, and what makes it worse is that it’s really the only part of Wreck-It Ralph that’s a) phenomenally boring, and b) seems to be talking down to its audience. Disney’s greatest recent successes are the movies where they manage to hit that magic middle ground of smart and accessible, and for most of this one, it’s the same way — which isn’t much of a surprise since it’s geared as much for the adults who have nostalgia for arcades as it is to the kids that drag those adults to the theater for cartoons.

And then, as Funny or Die writer/director Nick Wiger pointed out on Twitter, it turns into a weird candy movie for half an hour:

 

Okay, admittedly, I would be 100% in favor of adding a haunted boat to Jurassic Park, but you see what he’s getting at here. The entire exercise feels like someone down the hall from the Wreck-It Ralph plotting session overheard half of the conversation about Sugar Rush and showed up the next day with an armload of jokes about candy, and the rest of the team was too nice to tell him that they were actually making a movie about video games.

But still, the rest of the movie was good enough that the candy stuff didn’t break it for me. The plot’s formulaic, but Reilly and Silverman are fun enough to elevate the material, and Jack McBrayer having a romance with Jane Lynch (as a character undoubtedly inspired by Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard, right down to being “programmed with the most tragic backstory ever”) actually is everything you want it to be.

I’m a total sucker for this stuff, but I’ll admit that there was enough emotional resonance in this movie to keep me interested for the whole thing. That’s what really counts, because when you get right down to it, you’ve seen this story before. What makes it special isn’t what’s done, but how, and the performances and the set dressing do enough to make it well worth seeing.

It just would’ve been nice if they’d remembered what that set dressing was for the entire movie.

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