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.
Walt Disney animation’s first foray into 3D ‘toon making isn’t just a technical triumph it thankfully also tells the clever story of Bolt (John Travolta). He’s a superstar TV canine who believes the superpowers he displays weekly on his series are for real --especially when it comes to the protection of his master and co-star Penny (Miley Cyrus). One day however the dog is accidentally shipped from his Hollywood soundstage to New York City. Lost alone and confused on the streets of the Big Apple Bolt is still living the show vowing to get to Penny who he believes has been kidnapped by the “green-eyed man.” And so he embarks on a cross-country journey to L.A. to save Penny. Along the way he is joined by an abandoned wily housecat Mittens (Susie Essman) and a TV-loving hamster Rhino (Mark Walton) who believes everything he sees on the tube is ALSO real. Of course Bolt is in for rude awakening when he finds out he is just a regular dog but he still needs to get to Penny -- even if it means she might not be there for him when he returns. Disney is not a studio that generally depends on superstar voices for their animated films but in casting Travolta and tween queen Cyrus they have scored a bullseye. Travolta’s Bolt is a delightful cross between the self-assured superstar and a pooch in denial. The actor doesn’t phone it in but instead creates an original and loveable dog that stands proudly in Disney’s large canon of canine greats. The action scenes created for Bolt’s TV series are lots of fun and the interactions with his traveling companions are choice. As Penny Cyrus is sympathetic sincere and she even gets to sing a duet with Travolta “I Thought I Lost You ” which she co-wrote. The show is nearly stolen though by comedian Susie Essman (Curb Your Enthusiasm) as Mittens -- a smart determined and emotionally wounded pet cat abandoned by her owners and forced to wander the streets alone. And by Mark Walton as the hilarious Rhino the obsessive fanboy hamster who rolls around in his ball. Walton is actually an animator in real life who happened to be so good at voicing Rhino during tests they just gave him the job. Disney vets Chris Williams and Byron Howard capably usher the venerable Disney label into the brave new world of 3D animation and the results are promising -- putting the audience right in the center of Bolt’s universe. The TV series action set pieces are particularly effective in using the technology. It’s not even necessary to see the film in 3D because the whole CG process has come a long way in a few short years and Bolt is one of the best looking most accomplished animated films in memory -- glasses or no glasses. Williams and Howard expertly blend humor pathos and blockbuster-style action scenes effortlessly giving “Bolt” an appeal beyond just the target kid demo.
Based on Chris Van Allsburg's enchanting award winning children's book the story begins on a snowy Christmas Eve where a doubting young boy lies in his bed waiting to hear the sound he doesn't know if he believes in anymore: the tinkle of Santa's sleigh bells. What he hears instead however is the thunderous roar of an approaching train where no train should be: it's the Polar Express. Rushing outside in only a robe and slippers the incredulous boy meets the train's conductor who urges him to come onboard. Suddenly the boy finds himself embarking on an extraordinary journey to the North Pole with a number of other children--including a girl who has the tools to be a good leader but lacks confidence; a know-it-all boy who lacks humility; and a lonely boy who just needs to have a little faith in other people to make his dreams come true. Together the children discover that the wonder of Christmas never fades for those who believe. As the conductor wisely advises "It doesn't matter where the train is going. What matters is deciding to get on." Gives ya goose bumps doesn't it?
Talk about a vanity project for Tom Hanks. He portrays several of the characters in the film--the conductor the hobo who mysteriously appears and disappears on the Polar Express the boy's father. Wait isn't that Hanks playing Santa Claus as well? But if anyone can pull off some cheesy dialogue about the spirit of Christmas this Oscar-winning actor can. Interestingly the film also incorporates adults to play the children (none of the characters have names actually) with Hanks as the Hero Boy; Hanks' Bosom Buddies pal Peter Scolari as the Lonely Boy; The Matrix Revolutions Nona Gaye as the Hero Girl; and veteran voice actor Eddie Deezen as the Know-It-All Boy. Everyone does a good job but trying to make CGI-created people seem real is a difficult undertaking. With
The Polar Express director Robert Zemeckis has created an entirely new way to do computer animation called "performance capture." "[It's a process that] offers a vivid rendering of the Van Allsburg world while infusing a sense of heightened realism into the performances. It's like putting the soul of a live person into a virtual character " visual effects wizard and longtime Zemeckis collaborator Ken Ralston explains. Oh is that all? Problem is no matter how hard they try it doesn't work--not completely. Similar to flaws in the 2001 Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within virtual characters just can't convey human emotion as well as real-life actors plain and simple. And with a touching story like Polar Express that real-life connection is missed at times.
Of course like the images in the book it's still an exceptionally beautiful film to watch. Zemeckis enjoys being a filmmaking innovator. He charmed audiences with a lively blend of live action and manic animation in the 1988 classic action comedy Who Framed
Roger Rabbit? and then wowed them with the 1994 Oscar-winning Forrest Gump blending authentic archival footage of historic figures with the actors. Now with The Polar Express it's this performance capture which gives Zemeckis unlimited freedom in creating the world he wants. And boy does he make use of it. True the story is a classic but the director knows he has to make The Polar Express exciting for the tykes-- simply riding around in a train to North Pole without any thrills certainly wouldn't be enough for the ADD world we live in. To accomplish this the film is padded with exhilarating scenes such as the train going on a giant roller coaster ride through the mountains and across frozen lakes (too bad Warner Bros. doesn't have a theme park) and the boy's race across the top of the snowy Polar Express. Even the North Pole is a booming magical Mecca filled with some pretty boisterous (and weird looking) elves who like to send Santa off in style Christmas Eve--watch out for Aerosmith's Steven Tyler making a cameo as a jammin' elf. Ho-ho-ho!