Something About Japan: Sonic Team’s Sugar Rush

This week, Japanese news site 4gamer.net sat down with Wreck-It Ralph producer Clark Spencer and Sonic Team head Takashi Iizuka to find out how Disney went about licensing game characters such as Sonic The Hedgehog to appear in the film. Wreck-It Ralph was released in Japan at the end of March, as Sugar Rush.

“Games have been around for 40 years now, and the people who grew up with Pac-Man, Dig Dug and Pong are now in their 40s and 50s,” explained Spencer when asked why Disney had decided to set the film in a videogame world. “And since kids today play games too, that means both generations are familiar with gaming culture – which made it the perfect theme for a movie.”

Clark said that he and director Rich Moore knew right away that they needed to use real-life game characters in the film, to add an air of authenticity and to make it more fun.

“I knew that licensing characters from outside companies would not be impossible, because of films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Toy Story,” he said. “But I was still pretty nervous about whether we’d be able to pull it off.” Clark said that he attended E3 and spoke with several game developers to gauge how their characters might be used in a film, showing them storyboards and artwork during backroom presentations.

“I didn’t get any answers right away, but several of the people I spoke to said they thought it was a good idea and that they were interested in discussing it further,” said Clark. “As a producer I thought the seed had been well sown.”

“At first they told me that since the film is centred around the villain of a videogame, they would like Dr Eggman to appear,” recalled Iizuka, who has been involved in the series since Sonic 3 & Knuckles and is now in charge of all things Sonic. “The idea of also using Sonic was discussed later. I didn’t meet Spencer at that E3, so I heard about this afterwards. I was extremely concerned that they would need to tune the CG model of Dr Eggman to suit the movie. But I was relieved when I saw that the CG model they made was very faithful. And because they’d re-created Eggman with such reverence, I was happy for them to use Sonic too.”

Spencer said that Disney had a thorough approval process with each of the partner companies to ensure they were satisfied with how their characters were being used, and took great care to ensure relationships developed smoothly as the production went on.

“There was a scene where we wanted to have Sonic’s rings burst out of him, but when Sega checked the animation they would not approve it, because of the way the rings came out [unprovoked],” said Spencer when asked for some examples of changes Disney was asked to make by the game companies. “They pointed out that Sonic only loses his rings when he gets hit, so we fixed the scene.”

“Oh,” laughed Iizuka, “that ring comment actually came from me.”

“We also got a comment back [from Nintendo] saying, ‘Bowser is holding his cup the wrong way; Bowser would hold his cup like this‘ – so we changed it accordingly.”

Spencer said that Wreck-It Ralph features 62 licensed game characters, many of whom you see in Game Central Station, the hub that connects each of the disparate game worlds in the film. ”Characters like Sonic, Bowser and Pac-Man – every gamer knows these characters, so I was delighted that we could license them in the movie,” said Spencer. “I felt lucky to be able to use characters from games I played as a kid, and deeply honoured. To decide which characters to have appear, first we canvassed the staff. We put a notice on the billboard in the animation studio asking people to write their favourite game characters from their youth and from recent games, and that was a valuable reference.”

Spencer laughed when asked why Zangief was cast as a bad guy in the film, appearing in a scene where various villains attend group therapy to absolve their guilt over a fondness for crushing skulls with their bare hands.

“That caused quite a stir on the internet,” he said. “People across the States were hotly debating whether or not Zangief is a villain. I got to see a variety of opinions! Actually the screenplay writer is a big fan of the Street Fighter series and he really wanted to use Zangief in the film. He said that Zangief had originally looked more villainous than he does now. So we had him appear at the help group to back up Ralph. In the film, Zangief has a conflicted self-image because he is thought of as a bad guy.”

“Although I was continually checking the parts of the movie that used our characters, I didn’t know the whole story until I saw the completed film,” said Iizuka. “I enjoyed it so much. And by the way – Sonic and Eggman are not the only characters from the Sonic series in the film. See if you can spot anyone else!”