Wreck-It Ralph lives in an arcade and while that may be a longstanding fantasy for many of the children of the 80s the shine has more than worn off for Ralph. He resides in a videogame called Fix-It Felix and has been executing the same program for thirty years. Pursuant to the game’s 8-bit edict he must endeavor to destroy an apartment building as a quirky little do-gooder with a hammer tries to repair it. Ralph is a badguy but is he a bad guy? Feeling out of order he flees the world he knows to see if he can take his unfulfilling existence to the next level.
At a cursory glance Wreck-It Ralph may seem to offer nothing to anyone bereft of a passion for classic gaming. Truth be told there are ample references to games and gaming characters and not without a deep and knowledgeable affection. The jokes don’t come from the mere appearance of these characters but also videogame fundamentals actually permeate into the traits of the film’s original characters. In fact possibly the most thoughtful nod to gaming is the jerky movements of the characters within the Fix-it Felix cabinet superbly calling back to the limited range of motion afforded to 80s-era arcade fodder. It’s a balance of overt reference and the methods by which various gaming trademarks play into Wreck-It Ralph’s overarching universe.
And that universe is precisely what will draw in even those who have never held a controller. The landscapes through which Ralph travels are varied and gorgeous: from his modest but charming 8-bit home to the dark and foreboding nightmare of Hero’s Duty and finally to the garish wonderment of Sugar Rush. There are so many styles and applications of animation at work each dedicated to the conceptual scenery changes. You don’t need to know how to play Tapper or even that it ever existed as a real game to recognize that his almost stop-motion movements clash delightfully with the CG Ralph. And no Halo or Mario Kart knowledge required to understand the depth of detail in the worlds of Hero’s Duty and Sugar Rush respectively.
But like any hardcore gamer will attest great games cannot live by rich environments alone. The best games like the best movies are founded upon remarkable characters. Ralph may be a arcade videogame villain but his appeal is as broad as his building-leveling shoulders. He represents that need in all of us to rise above our station to challenge the notion that we are predestined to one occupation or personality set. Ralph is a guy who’s bad because he’s programmed to be but he is constantly looking at the life he wants--the life of a hero--from the other side of the glass literally in fact. It’s a sweetly relatable theme that finds its way into other characters like Ralphs pint-sized nemesis Vanellope. It is from this theme that the movie derives the majority of its heart.
The voice cast here is exceptional but that should come as no surprise considering the characters seem modeled after the personalities of the performers selected or at least modeled after the characters they tend to portray. Ralph brought to life by John C. Reilly is a perennial sad sack with an awkward sense of humor that is somehow endearing. Voiced by Sarah Silverman Vanellope is a shrill snarky troublemaker who manages to be adorable despite herself. Felix is a dopey but sincere yokel…voiced by 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer. Jane Lynch voices the bossy domineering female soldier with the endless vocabulary of put-downs. Need we say more? That’s not to say this approach is lazy; far from it. It gives the characters a fleshed-out lived-in quality.
Wreck-It Ralph significantly narrows the gap between Disney and Pixar in terms of excellence. It still seems strange to think of Disney and Pixar as two separate bodies but the fact is that as soon as Pixar made the choice to stand alone their films have outshined Disney’s by a considerable margin. Wreck-It Ralph borrows liberally from the Pixar playbook evident right from the moment the central conceit is revealed to be the bestowing of sentience and personality to inanimate entities. And like Pixar Wreck-It Ralph is at its most enjoyable and most clever when the audience experiences the functional mechanics of how these characters exist in their own world the specificity of their imagined living space and its logistics. Yet this time Disney has dug deeper than the amiable outward trappings and arrived at what makes us love the films of Pixar and quality family entertainment in general.
If there is a complaint to be had with Wreck-It Ralph it is merely that it introduces a fascinating and thoroughly entertaining concept and then limits itself to but a few outlets for its expression. The movie spends so much time in Sugar Rush and while it’s beautiful and captivating we wonder what the other games would have had to offer. It’s akin to Monday morning filmmaking “I would’ve done this” or “I would’ve done that ” but it would have been the cherry on the sundae or perhaps more appropriately the various fruits in the maze to have been able to witness Ralph’s interaction with other games.
By the time we reach the kill screen Wreck-It Ralph has used something as geeky and esoteric as the world of arcade gaming to warp us to a place of emotional resonance and utter delight. Suffice to say it has plenty of replay value.
In an almost completely wordless first 40 minutes we meet the workaholic robot Wall E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) as he goes about the daily tasks--organizing an abandoned junk yard with remnants of what life was like before mankind was forced to leave earth (or die) in the 22nd century. Apparently no one remembered to turn his switch off so he continues to do his thing in the shadow of an eerily empty city. One day a spaceship lands and drops off a spiffy search robot named EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). EVE strikes up a touching even romantic relationship with little Wall E his first contact with anything or anyone (other than a pet cockroach) in about 700 years. When EVE discovers that Wall E may have come upon the living proof that Earth is once again inhabitable she blasts off to tell the humans aboard the Axiom--a massive shopping mall-like space station--that it may finally be safe to return home. Not wanting to let her go Wall E hops on during takeoff and blasts into the outer reaches of the universe where he experiences the surreal future and brings hope from the past. Be prepared to fall in love with the most engaging and original new movie star in ages. The extraordinary performance here is a robot who utters sounds not words and comes brilliantly alive through state-of-the-art CGI animation and expert vocal design by legendary sound wizard Ben Burtt (R2D2 of Star Wars). He makes this non-human love-struck piece of tin the most human element in the film. Wall E does not need words to express his understanding of affairs of the heart. In fact the early sequences in which he repeatedly watches an old video tape of the 1969 musical Hello Dolly (the only one is his obviously limited collection) we totally understand where his notions of romance come from--and from an 800 year-old semi-flop Hollywood movie no less. The trip into space brings encounters with some misfit robots as well as the rotund immobile humans competently performed by vets like Jeff Garlin as the ship’s captain Fred Willard John Ratzenberger Kathy Najimy and Sigourney Weaver as the ship’s computer. But the real acting voice-over prizes belong to Burtt and his sound design colleagues this time. Oscar take notice: Pixar has done it again. Co-writer/director Andrew Stanton won an Oscar for Finding Nemo and has worked in some capacity on just about every Pixar triumph from Toy Story; through last year’s Oscar winning Ratatouille. His creative need to stretch and explore uncharted ‘toon territory results in the offbeat Wall-E which abandons the talking creature formats for a surreal touching and environmentally-conscious love story. The film sets off alarms for the future of our planet but also offers hope that it’s not too late. Stanton’s most daring notion is to create almost a silent film for the first half and in so doing gives us an animated cinematic experience the likes of Chaplin Keaton and Jacques Tati would have loved. The achievement of keeping an audience glued to the screen watching incommunicative non-humans who learn to communicate and care for each other is no easy thing. Stanton creates beautiful visuals and a well-crafted story to go with them. This is one from the heart.
Packed with too much goodness and determined to push its platform of paranormal events A Rumor of Angels is an overwrought drama about friendship grief and the spiritual rebirth of a boy and his eccentric recluse neighbor. Twelve-year-old James Neubauer his father Nathan and his stepmother Mary are spending their summer vacation in the small seaside town where the boy's mother died years earlier in a car accident near a local bridge. Because James has been traumatized by her death he has problems connecting with his often absent father and new mother. When James wanders onto the property of eccentric elderly neighbor Maddy Bennett who lives in a decrepit shingled house overlooking the ocean she scares the boy by firing a rifle in his direction. After a showdown with the Neubauers Maddy succeeds in hiring James to rebuild and paint her fence. An unlikely friendship ensues when James becomes a kind of surrogate son to Maddy who lost her own son in the Vietnam War and the stern but caring Maddy becomes mother surrogate the boy so desperately needs. Maddy also beset by grief teaches James about the power of remembrance and imagination and the possibility of angels and communicating with those long gone. James also learns about the importance of family love friendship and spiritual awakening.
Vanessa Redgrave is terrific as usual as the eccentric recluse Maddy giving yet another powerful performance that dazzles delights and soars beyond the limitations of the character as written. Trevor Morgan is fine if not memorable as James. Catherine McCormack as the stepmother Ron Livingston as a slacker uncle and veteran actor George Coe as Maddy's oldest friend also turn in serviceable performances. Only Ray Liotta so memorable in edgier meatier roles like those in Something Wild and Goodfellas or the more recent Hannibal and Blow is out of his element as a frustrated often absent dad. In fact most of the actors are chewed up by the gorgeous evocative Nova Scotia locales that brilliantly stand in for the Maine village.
Director Peter O'Fallon's biggest obstacle in A Rumor of Angels appears to be his own screenplay which he co-wrote and adapted from the very old inspirational novel Thy Son Liveth. Most filmgoers won't get beyond the film's pile-up of hokum about communication with the dead. Also the horror and mystery elements that A Rumor of Angels plants early on dissipate into a cinematic sermon about familiar family values and faith. The messages may be poignant but the drama sending them isn't. O'Fallon relies instead on lovely cinematography scenes suggestive of paranormal reality (those lights those angels) and a soundtrack rich in classical music--all at the expense of delivering a credible story with flesh and blood characters who actually sound like they just might be real New Englanders. His direction is style over substance scenery over psychological truths.