THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Wreck-It Ralph’

The one that took a leaf out of Pixar’s playbook.

When Pixar animator/director John Lasseter became the Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2006, he went searching for new projects to push the studio into new territory outside their traditional princess fairy tale fare. In his hunt for something unlike anything Disney had previously produced, he stumbled across a promising project that had been stuck in development hell for over 15 years.

In the late 1980s, Disney began developing an animated action-adventure set inside the chaotic world of video games, with the film intended to focus on a video game hero who longed for something more from his monotonous, repetitive life. The project was redeveloped and unsuccessfully workshopped several times for the better part of a decade. While the film was initially developed under the working title High Score, it became known as Joe Jump in the late 1990s, and then Reboot Ralph in the mid-2000s.

Despite several earnest attempts to bring the project to life, the pitch was consistently rejected by Disney’s executive team, who felt the central character was missing something special to allow audiences to truly warm to a video game hero. When Lasseter uncovered the project in 2008, he immediately approached veteran television director Rich Moore and invited him to try and crack the right idea to bring the film to life.

Moore had graduated from California Institute of the Arts (the feeding ground for the next generation of Disney and Pixar animators and directors) with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1987, where his fellow classmates included future Oscar-winning Pixar directors Andrew Stanton and Brenda Chapman. Three years later, Moore was one of the original three directors of The Simpsons, directing 17 episodes throughout the show’s first five seasons. In 1999, Moore oversaw the creative development of Futurama and went on to direct five episodes, including the iconic “Roswell That Ends Well” episode.

After Lasseter offered Moore the opportunity to join Disney to write and direct the video game project, the director was initially hesitant to accept the proposal. Moore felt his style wouldn’t exactly fit with Disney’s legacy of animated princess fairy tales and cutesy animal capers, nor was he convinced the video game world would lend itself to an animated feature. Moore felt video game characters were little more than pre-programmed robots who do exactly what they’re designed to do, which didn’t exactly sound like an entertaining idea for a film.

But Lasseter was quick to put Moore’s mind at ease, promising the director he was free to develop any style of film he felt fit the project and from his own point of view. While pondering the idea of a video game character stuck in an endless loop of performing the same tasks over and over again, Moore had a breakthrough; what if a video game character made the drastic decision not to follow his programming anymore? In March 2009, Moore pitched the concept to Lasseter, who immediately approved the new direction for the project.

From here, Moore was joined by Phil Johnston, Jim Reardon, and Jennifer Lee to assist with fleshing out the story further. Reardon was Moore’s CalArts classmate and one of the two other directors on the early seasons of The Simpsons. Johnston was an up-and-coming director and screenwriter, who suggested his former Columbia University classmate Lee for the project. Lee was initially hired for a temporary eight-week contract, but was eventually asked to stay on to co-write the full screenplay with Moore.

The quartet began work on the project, which focused on a frustrated video game character named Fix-It Felix Junior, who had no interest in interesting his father’s mantle as the star of an 8-bit arcade game, Fix-It Felix. After standing up to his shocked father, Felix would leave the safe confines of his game to explore other virtual game worlds in search of a place of his own, all while being hunted by Fix-It Felix‘s resident bad guy, Wreck-It Ralph.

But Moore soon realised Ralph was far more interesting and entertaining than Felix himself, leading to a total reimagining of the project to build the film around Ralph instead. Inspired by Moore’s direction, the team created the narrative of a pre-programmed bad guy with a heart of gold, who desperately longs to be the hero. Ralph would ultimately reject the destiny of his programming and set out to win a gold medal from the violent first-person shooter video game Hero’s Duty, which, naturally, was inspired by the uber-popular game Call of Duty.

In his quest for glory, Ralph would take an unfortunate detour into the confectionery-themed kart racing video game Sugar Rush, where he would join forces with a rambunctious young girl, Vanellope von Schweetz, who has found herself unceremoniously booted from partaking in the racing due to a glitch in her programming. While in Sugar Rush, Ralph and Vanellope would cross paths with King Candy, the ruler of the game whose initially friendly demeanour masks his true intentions.

The team created the location of Game Central Station to act as a train station-like thoroughfare that linked the video games together and would be littered with dozens of other video game characters. Moore wanted to cast these characters as cameos of existing video games characters, with the team writing a wish list of famous characters they longed to utilise before seeking copyright permission from the corresponding video game developers for use in the film. To Moore’s surprise, every single developer approved their request, as long as Disney would assure them their characters would be represented authentically.

The scenes inside Game Central Station would feature cameos from Chun-Li, Cammy and Blanka from Street Fighter, Pac-Man, Blinky, Pinky, and Inky from Pac-Man, the Paperboy from Paperboy, the two paddles and the ball from Pong, Dig Dug, a Pooka, and a Fygar from Dig Dug, the Qix from Qix, Frogger from Frogger, and Peter Pepper from BurgerTime. Early in the film, Ralph would attend Bad-Anon, a support group meeting for fellow bad guys struggling with their villain status, whose attendees included Bowser from the Mario franchise, Dr. Eggman from Sonic the Hedgehog, Zangief and M. Bison from Street Fighter II, and Clyde from Pac-Man.

For the extensive confectionery animation that would build the world of Sugar Rush, the animators attended ISM Cologne, the world’s leading trade fair for confectionery and snacks, and the See’s Candy factory in Los Angeles to research and study hundreds of different confectionary products that would inspire those used in the film. Moore also invited food photographers to the studio to demonstrate various lighting techniques to make food appear visually appealing.

The animation technology team built a brand new lighting and shading system from the ground up Wreck-It Ralph, in addition to a new virtual Camera Capture cinematography system, which allowed Moore to walk through scenes in real-time and visualise takes and camera movements. The lighting system employed bidirectional reflectance distribution functions, which created realistic surface reflections more inherently rooted in reality. By the end of production, Wreck-It Ralph required more visual effects than any film in Disney’s history.

Wreck-It Ralph was released on November 2, 2012, to overwhelmingly positive reviews from film critics. The New York Times wrote, “the movie invites a measure of¬†cynicism, which it proceeds to obliterate with a 93-minute blast of colour, noise, ingenuity and fun,” Variety called the film “brilliantly conceived, gorgeously executed toon, earning bonus points for backing nostalgia with genuine emotion,” while TIME magazine declared it “the most inventive and entertaining family movie of the year.”

The response from the general public was equally as rapturous, with Wreck-It Ralph grossing $189.4 million in the U.S. and a further $281.8 million internationally for an impressive worldwide total of $471.2 million. This made the film the fourth highest-grossing Disney animated film of all time at that point. During its opening U.S. weekend, the film topped the box office with $49 million, making it the largest opening for a Walt Disney Animation Studios film at the time.

During awards season, Wreck-It Ralph won Best Animated Feature at the Annie Awards (the animation industry’s highest honour), the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, the National Board of Review, and the Producers Guild of America Award. After such success, many Oscar prognosticators (including yours truly) assumed the film was the frontrunner to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and become the first Disney animated feature to win this category. However, it wasn’t to be, and the Oscar went to Pixar’s Brave, which, ironically, was co-directed by Moore’s CalArts classmate Brenda Chapman.

As many have noted since its 2012 release, Wreck-It Ralph was the first example of a Disney animated feature feeling inherently more like something Pixar had cooked up. Since their debut in 1995 with Toy Story, Pixar had been crafting animated films that often delved into worlds beyond the human realm and showcased the very human attributes of inanimate objects like children’s toys and racing cars or sentient animals like tropical fish, rodents, and insects. By taking us inside a video game to examine the complex emotional psyche of a computer-generated bad guy, Wreck-It Ralph deftly follows the Pixar formula to success.

Its premise sounds unbelievably absurd, but its strength proves to be the surprising level of depth its protagonist is blessed with. On his surface, Ralph is nothing more than your typical jughead villain, but, almost immediately, we are invited inside his complicated mind that longs to change his programmed trajectory in life. Bad guys are rarely gifted with thoughts outside of villainy, but Ralph never asked to be crafted in such fashion and surely he’s right to question his place in the world. Ralph’s heart is consistently displayed on his sleeve, creating an endearing level of sympathy from an audience from the moment we meet him.

At its heart, Wreck-It Ralph is a film that highlights the complicated progress of attempting to change characteristics fundamental to our very being. Ralph is a bad guy. Vanellope is a glitch. Their burgeoning bond ultimately forms over their mutual desire to evolve beyond who they truly are. But it’s only when they embrace these attributes do they find their hidden inner strength. It’s a sharp and refreshing revelation that’s often so lacking in Disney animated films of the past, particularly something like The Little Mermaid where Ariel literally has to change her physical appearance to attain her goal of ensnaring the heart of Prince Eric.

It’s the emotional core of Wreck-It Ralph that truly plays to the best of Pixar’s canon of animated masterpieces. Blessed with the charming voiceover performance of John C. Reilly, Ralph is so infectiously warm and beautifully relatable that it’s hard not to feel for the poor guy throughout his difficult journey to inner enlightenment. Likewise with Vanelloppe, who just wants to be like all the other racers, which undoubtedly hits hard with any of us who have ever equally desired to be “normal.” Their unlikely friendship ultimately creates one of the greatest duos in Disney history and is a reminder of the power that can occur when two “outsiders” find strength in numbers.

On a visual scale, Wreck-It Ralph is one of the most dazzling pieces of animation the Disney studio has ever crafted. The intricate and expansive world designs of both Sugar Rush and Hero’s Duty are simply stunning, particularly the candy wonderland found in the game Vanellope calls home. Some may sneer at the subtle (and not-so-subtle) product placement found in Sugar Rush, but it adds a level of necessary authenticity to the video game and most of these references are played for laughs anyhow.

A richly entertaining, gorgeously crafted, and surprisingly heartwarming piece of animation, Wreck-It Ralph continued Disney’s new renaissance period in terrific style. Loaded with laughs and sight-gags, adult viewers will likely spend an endless amount of time pointing out all the video game cameos and references, but these only seek the compliment the original delights of this remarkable film. While Wreck-It Ralph may echo the Pixar formula, it’s still unique enough to stand on its own two feet. Disney had finally settled into the medium of computer animation and the studio was just getting started.

Is Wreck-It Ralph a Disney Classic? With all of these more recently released Disney animated films, it’s difficult to say if any have yet truly earned the status of a Disney Classic. But the critical and commercial success of Wreck-It Ralph is hard to ignore, as is the fact it’s one of only three Disney animated films to receive a sequel. It’s a film that’s so supremely rewatchable, making it easy to call Wreck-It Ralph a modern-day Disney Classic.

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