I thought about the nature of video games, video game movies, and popular culture in general. You see, even though retro gaming has certainly had its resurgence in the past couple of years, I found it strange for awhile that Scott Pilgrim and Wreck-It Ralph would root themselves in that specific branch of gaming while Call of Duty and God of War are the hip new things. For Scott Pilgrim, despite its acclaim, it wasn't enough, and failed to bring in a large audience. Wreck-It Ralph has a bit of a leg up. It's Disney, it has a world inspired by Halo, and it generally has a broader appeal. I thought about why this is and I think for the most part, it's because it perfectly matched material with target audience. It's perfectly tailored for kids because even though they may not “get” some of the more obscure characters, they can follow the story and focus on those that they do know—Bowser casually sipping coffee, Sonic delivering a PSA, and Pac Man wobba-wobbaing around Felix's penthouse are all going to draw their attention. Meanwhile, their parents, who were kids when these games were popular, have the added parental bonus of picking up on all the smaller stuff. I think those two age groups are best suited, but I think it has a pretty universal appeal for the sake of just telling a very good story with characters deserving of instant classic status. I think it may alienate some teenagers, who may have “cooler things to do,” but even they get shoutouts to their age group: good ol' Skrillex shows up as a cyber DJ, and later you can catch a glimpse of Leroy Jenkins graffiti.
So the video game aesthetic is clearly a good choice as it establishes an audience, but the setting accomplishes something even more than that. It's widely accepted as fact that video game movies are lame. From the Super Mario Bros movie to Street Fighter to Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li, all have been met with derision and disregard, even if some later achieved cult status. Many called Scott Pilgrim the first great video game movie despite not being based on a video game, but now we have this to take the throne. Though it is not based on any preexisting game, one might consider it as such since there is a Fit-It Felix game that was released before the movie (and is a lot of fun!). What I'm getting at is it's not a format that (until this release) was explicitly tackled in the mainstream media with any kind of success. But with Wreck-It Ralph we have something good that presents all the potential of video game movies.
The video game movie format does something new: it completely recasts tropes that we've become accustomed to over the years. It doesn't have to deal with a messy backstory for Sergeant Calhoun because they pass it off as just being in her programming. In another movie her depressing backstory would be seen as “Oh, they just wanted to make us feel sympathy for her.” But in this one, it's not even a real event that happened—it's a memory that was programmed into her. And it's not the memory that shapes her character. The memory is the programmer's excuse for the character. This is why her flashbacks are so hyperbolized. It's simultaneously humorous, explanatory, and gives her character some depth. It should come as no surprise that a video game movie could rewrite tropes like this, because that's what video games did when they first came out. It was a completely new medium with new things to say and new ways to say them. With this movie, a whole new spectrum of explanations and plot devices is now available to filmmakers based on the way that video games and movies function separately. For example, final confrontations in movies and games are different. In a game, defeating the bad guy is a heavily personal experience as you fight the guy who has single-handedly oppressed you. In a movie there's a distinct separation. But in Wreck-It Ralph as soon as the villain identifies himself as “the final boss” I know I for one clicked into personal mode. This villain became Bowser, Eggman, Wily, and Ganon, and it was on. It hit a personal chord with me. It's rather impossible to not appreciate that.
Other themes arise all over the place... themes of acceptance, destiny, even possible suggestions of disability-as-a-superpower with Vanellope's glitch. It's all something that you should explore for yourself with an open mind, ready to let out your inner child. At its worst it's a frenetic, high octane thrill ride with breathtaking visuals, a nostalgic soundtrack, stunning detail work, pitch-perfect characters, and a great sense of humor. At its best its an emotionally driven work of art that redefines what a movie can be.
I stand by what I said. This is one of the most important movies ever made.
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