This weekend's big box office take for Disney's animated comedy Wreck-It Ralph is a clear indication that audiences ate up the video game-inspired feature, reviews comparing it to the heartfelt work from sister company Pixar. The existential journey of the titular character, the villain of a Donkey Kong-esque arcade game Fix-It Felix, balances its adventure with video game references and character cameos — the story is its own beast, but founded on decades of well-known games.
On the surface, the movie sports an immersive world. Behind the scenes, it was a legal triathalon.
"It took us a long time to get clearance for all the characters," Wreck-It Ralph producer Clark Spencer told Hollywood.com. Besides its original creations, Wreck-It Ralph collects characters from around the gaming globe, including Nintendo's Bowser, SEGA's Sonic the Hedgehog, and characters from Capcom's Street Fighter. Legal rights keep any creative property under lock and key from outsider use, making it difficult for a big studio like Disney to pull off a "mash-up" film. Thankfully, savvy producers have pulled it off in the past, and it helped leverage the ambitious prospect of Wreck-It Ralph for Spencer and director Rich Moore. "I think Roger Rabbit and Toy Story paved a great road for us. The companies realize there is something fun about having characters from different universes coming together and it can be beneficial to both sides, not just something for the Disney company."
Spencer and Moore's version of Wreck-It Ralph was the final incarnation of a movie that has been development at Disney since the '90s, where it originated as Joe Jump and evolved by the mid-2000s into Reboot Ralph. When Moore finally stepped in to the process, the movie began to take shape.
"Usually what happens is that you know the director from years of working at Disney, and you come together as a team," says Spencer. "Rich Moore was new to Disney, coming from The Simpsons. I knew that would be someone I would want to work with, because I wanted to know how their brains work."
Spencer saw a new creative energy in Moore and worked hard to ease him into the Disney way of life. "There's a lot of how the company works that, for someone who has never done it before, they [need] someone by their side who can explain, 'At this point in the process, this is the sort of thing that starts to happen.'" Directing a movie at the Mouse House is only one part of the job. According to Spencer, part of his job was helping Moore understand how is movie would function in other areas of the company, including consumer products, interactive gaming, and theme parks. "All of those pieces of the puzzle are things Rich has to be involved in, and I wanted to help him understand what of each of these aspects were, and at what point he should be pushing back if something wasn't fitting within how he imagined the film or the characters."
In 2010, it finally came time for Spencer and Moore to embark on their mission to assemble a cameo-filled ensemble for Wreck-It Ralph. To get the job done, the duo headed to E3, the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo where companies and industry players show off the latest and greatest in video games. Spencer and Moore hit up the convention to pitch the film to majors like Nintendo and SEGA. Luckily, the movie had been in development long enough that their song and dance was more than just a well-planned sales pitch.
"The movie was far enough along that not only could we pitch the story, but we could actually show storyboards with their characters as part of the film," says Spencer. "I think, visually, when you see something, you start to think, 'That's funny. That will be a great integration of our character into this movie.'"
Video game movies have a spotty record, thanks to the continued mistranslation of a game's essence to what could function on screen. (Nintendo still feels the burn from their 1993's Super Mario Bros., which is why we haven't seen any other big screen adaptations of their games.) Spencer was well aware of the Hollywood troubles that have plagued game companies. "We said, 'We will let you go on this journey with us. We promise we will always share script pages, we will show you the model as it's getting built. We will show you the test animation. And we will even let you approve the final animation in the show — something we've never done before."
The approach worked. Spencer and Moore got the characters they wanted, but the filmmakers worked hard to keep up their end of the bargain. "With Nintendo, we sent the Bowser scenes back and forth to say, 'Are we being true to your character?' says Spencer. "And they would give us notes, and we'd address those notes, and then we'd send it back to Nintendo and they'd give us [more] notes." Spencer notes that the Walt Disney Animation brand was a big sell for the gaming companies, an assurance that the final product would be top quality — but that doesn't mean the various companies didn't have a few notes along the way. "Ironically with Bowser, we maybe in the beginning we were being too fluid. That's not the way Boswer moves. They would talk about the mouth shapes. There was too much attention to detail in the mouth shapes. They would say, 'That's not how Boswer moves.' And that's a good note for them to be giving back to us, to stay true to the character."
Balancing the tone and references of Wreck-It Ralph for both adults and children was one of the team's biggest challenge. But as for nodding to retro games, there was never a worry on Spencer's part. "When the story was first set, they wanted the protagonist to be a character who had done the same job for 30 years … The world of video games just became this great universe to set it in. So if he's been doing the job for 30 years, you're going to start in the world of an 8-Bit game. Our thought was, if you do the story correctly, it doesn't matter if you understand the 8-bit games, because kids play video games. They'll understand the character." Thanks to the advent of mobile gaming, Spencer believes Ralph's retro style is easily digestible by audiences of all ages. "Pac-man, Q*Bert… kids are discovering them. Even if you've never played Donkey Kong, and the Fix-It Felix game certainly has similarities to it, you'll still understand the journey of the character in the film."
To best compliment the impressive mosaic of gaming characters, Spencer turned to a master of mash-ups "When it comes to Hero's Duty (the movie's fictional first-person shooter), we wanted it to feel modern. The natural inclination was to go to heavy metal, because that felt like what might exist. But Tom [MacDougall, music supervisor], to his credit, said we should go even more modern. Electronic dubstep — and Skrillex is the hottest out there." The breakout DJ may not be a likely collaborator for a Disney movie, but turns out, he's a big fan. "He loves the movie Tangled," says Spencer.
With an open mind and goal to make Wreck-It Ralph an all-encompassing video game movie, the sky was the limit for Spencer and Moore to include their favorite characters. And they did. "One was Pong. It was the first game I ever played. That was a big one. We went to Atari and I said, 'Please, please, please.' That was the seminal one for me. The other one was Dig-Dug. I was a huge fan. But Pong started my history in video games."
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures]
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