Wreck-It Ralph’s director on rendering the world of Disney’s film about gaming culture
Within the office building that Disney Animation calls home in Burbank, California, there’s an archive of misfit ideas. These are concepts that someone once considered turning into a movie or short film, but for whatever reason were never able to bring to fruition.
Until recently, one of those forgotten ideas was a movie about the secret life of a videogame character. “They tried it in the ‘90s, I think it was called High Score, but it went nowhere,” says director Rich Moore as he fiddles with a little Bowser toy that someone has left in a conference room. “And they tried it again in 2000, and called it Joe Jump, but it hit a dead end as well.”
Until Moore came along, that is. A veteran of animated comedy shows such as The Simpsons and Futurama, Moore has now directed Wreck-It Ralph, an animated movie about the antagonist in a fictional ‘80s arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr. Tired of doing the same thing for 30 years, and of the role he’s been assigned in life, Ralph (voiced by Talladega Nights’ John C Reilly) starts jumping into other games to prove to everyone, including himself, that while he may be the bad guy, he’s not a bad person.
Ralph’s game, Fix-It Felix Jr, gives him a role that Donkey Kong would sympathise with: to lob debris from the top of the screen at the hero
Remarkably, when Moore first considered making a movie about the life of a videogame character, he understood why the idea had been rejected so many times before. “Without looking at what the other people had done, I started to think about what kind of story we could tell,” he recalls. “But after thinking about it for about a week, I was convinced it would be horrible. What kind of story could you tell with characters who do the same thing over and over? But then there was a moment where we realised that it’s actually a great conflict. What would it be like to be someone like that?”
Still, it wasn’t until screenwriter Phil Johnston (Cedar Rapids) and Moore looked at things from a different perspective that their film really came together. “The movie was originally going to be about Felix [the good guy in Ralph’s game],” says Moore, “but we realised his story wasn’t that interesting. A good guy who becomes a better guy? Then we realised we could make it about Ralph, about a bad guy who’s tired of being the bad guy.”
In a way, it sounds like a similar approach to Pixar’s Toy Story 3. Not just in showing the life of inanimate objects when humans aren’t looking, but in telling a mature story by enlisting childhood memories and reference points. After watching about 25 minutes of Wreck-It Ralph, it’s obvious that while kids will enjoy the slapstick moments and silly verbal sparring, the film seeks to resonate on a different level with adults. And it’s not just for those who grew up with videogames, but also those who feel stuck doing the same job, who are tired of their role in life, or who are simply nursing a midlife crisis.
While finally turning the life of a videogame character into a movie must be at least partial vindication for those ideas still languishing in the vaults of Disney Animation, it also marks the point at which videogames’ language and iconography are seen as being able to support a big-budget movie for mainstream consumption. It’s a leap of recognition – remember that it was only six years ago that Hollywood gave the green light to Stay Alive, a horror flick about a videogame that kills people. But just as games have matured over the years, so have the people who play them.