Over the last few years, I’ve been a big fan of Disney/Pixar films, but not so much of the films put out by Disney itself. While I enjoyed Tangled well enough, when compared to the Toy Story franchise or Wall-E, the more mainstream Disney movies just don’t have the same emotional impact.
Or at least they didn’t. I think Disney may have broken that trend with their newest film, Wreck-It Ralph.
It’s not for nothing that this film marks a departure from Disney’s typical formula of repackaging classic fairy tales, either. By stepping outside of this traditional storytelling structure, they allowed for something new and adventurous. There’s a creative energy behind Wreck-It Ralph that was missing from The Princess and the Frog and Tangled.
This isn’t to say that Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t rely on classic stories as its inspiration. It’s just that these are classic video game stories … the fairy tales of the modern age.
The Basic Story (Minimal Spoilers)
Ralph is the “bad guy” in an 8-bit video game called Fix-It Felix, Jr., in which he lives in the city dump and comes down every day to destroy an apartment building, while the hero of the game repairs it. On the 30th anniversary of his video game, he has an existential crisis and decides he wants to be treated with respect. Toward this end, he decides to become a hero in another video game … throwing his own game into chaos.
That’s the basic story, the one that you get in the trailers, and there’s certainly no shortage of cameos and Easter eggs for those who grew up with video games in the 80’s and 90’s. (My 7-year-old missed some of the jokes that impressed me the most, of course.)
But what this description misses is how deeply plotted Wreck-It Ralph actually is, the many layers and plot twists that come up … but for that, we’ll need to offer at least a few high-level spoilers (nothing too major, though).
The Deeper Story (Mild Spoilers)
Ralph sets out on his quest to earn a medal. The trailers give the impression that the film is about Ralph jumping from game to game in an effort to get this medal. That isn’t quite accurate. Actually, Ralph only spends time in a couple of other games. He acquires his medal fairly early in the film … and then loses it. I won’t go into the detail of the loss, but in order to get it back, he has to help a misfit character – Vanellope from the racing game Sugar Rush – win a race.
So about two-thirds of the way into the film, it feels like things are pretty much set for a fairly straightforward, Disney-style ending. Ralph will help Vanellope win the race, get his medal back, Vanellope will no longer be an outcast, and Ralph will finally get respect. You begin to feel like you’re ready for this all to unfold, with most of the twists and turns out of the way.
While the above would have still made for a decent movie, Ralph instead goes in a completely different direction.
In fact, Ralph gets his medal back earlier than expected … and that’s when things begin to go seriously off the rails. Plot twists begin spinning out in rapid succession, the big one of which is one of those Sixth Sense-like plot twists that is absolutely obvious in retrospect, but which I didn’t see coming at all.
By the time the conclusion rolls around, Disney has built a film with as much emotional impact as the best of the films put out by Pixar over the last decade. It’s proof that Disney really does still have the ability to tell a fabulous story. Here’s hoping that they continue thinking outside of the fairy tale tropes for their next film idea.
Andrew Zimmerman Jones is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. He has been a finalist in the Writers of the Future contest and received Honorable Mention in the 2011 Writer’s Digest Science Fiction/Fantasy Competition. In addition to being a contributing editor to Black Gate magazine, Andrew is the About.com Physics Guide and author of String Theory For Dummies. You can follow his exploits on Facebook, Twitter, and even Google+.