The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Wreck-It Ralph

Written by Ivan Girina.

Photo from the article Film critique is generally defined as a positive operation that tries to analyse the textual object according to its own characteristics and paradigms. Nevertheless, at times, the best value of an object shines through only by comparison within the system that produced it and its ideologies. As previously stated in my review of the film, Wreck-It Ralph is primarily a tale of acceptance that fits perfectly within the lines of contemporary animation through a mature narrative and a spectacular aesthetic. After struggling to establish an identity in the market of CGI animation, Disney finally updates its formula to version 2.0, more up to speed with its competitors (DreamWorks and Pixar), merging its didascalic narrative with recently fashionable elements of sarcasm and anti-conformism.

At the same time, the film tries to establish a contemporary visual aesthetic, experimental at times, which unfortunately lacks consistency and courage. It’s a story of self-discovery and rising awareness that takes the audience through a virtual journey across the digital universe, from game to game, during which the characters discover more about their worlds. In accordance with tradition, the journey eventually reveals the characters’ personal stories, providing the spectator with access to their human depths. At the same time, Wreck-It Ralph operates as a meta-critical reflection on the nature of the video game medium and its development over the last 30 years, addressing the reception of video games in contemporary society. The film casts the video game issue under a new critical light, unafraid of celebrating the expressive power of this new-comer to the family of mass media and giving voice to the nostalgic feelings of the ‘arcade generation’.

In fact, on a formal level the film rewards the arcade generation through subtle details, suggesting a sense of nostalgia that appeals to and pleases an audience of former or veteran players, fulfilling on both a stylistic and iconic level. Both the soundtrack and the CGI graphics are occasionally populated with cues mindful of the 8 and 16-bit aesthetics. The inhabitants of the video game Fix-It Felix, Jr. are brought to life through twitchy animations in true Nintendo fashion, while the soundtrack amplifies the nostalgic tone by enacting symphonic versions of classic 8 and 16-bit tunes. While the graphics of the games in the arcade is lacking in colourful variety, the vivid tones of modern animation anticipate the liveliness of these worlds behind these arcade screens.

Indeed, these sequences provide the most interesting moments of the film, in which the camera trespasses the screen threshold allowing the audience to jump between two dimensions: the arcade and the video game ones, two diegetic levels that establish an interplay of light with each other. Here the cinematic instance works at its best, acting as a magic window between worlds: the video game characters appear as luminous pixels on the cabinet screens while the glass of the cabinet allows the light in the arcade to shine across the game world, a sun that becomes eclipsed by the 'out of order' sign. There is a whole poetry of light in these sequences that is unfortunately lost once the audience is established in the games’ diegetic worlds. Moreover, the film’s experimental aesthetic is not consistent, preventing the emergence of a powerful retro style. Finally, the credits sequence represents the most fulfilling moment of text in this sense, during which the characters from the film run across multiple game scenarios animated in simil-16-bit fashion. There is something deeply nostalgic and, at the same time, rewarding in watching Ralph wrecking a car in the bonus level of Street Fighter, and the spectator - especially if they're a gamer - is left with the desire to see more of those pixelated worlds, referenced but largely absent in this film.

Nevertheless, the film value still lies most importantly in its contribution to cinematic discourses on video games. During the 1980s the arcade gave birth to a range of subcultures, fostering generations of outsiders that could find shelter in this cultural label and in its community. Games eventually changed - Ralph is amazed at the sight of the high-definition realism of the FPS Hero's Duty - and they evolved into a spectacular form, problematically described through the demonising rhetoric of other media. On the one hand, this depiction promotes ideologies such as the ones of ‘realistic immersion’ and ‘enhanced interactivity’ of video games, exalting the engagement of the user with the medium. On the other hand, video games have been increasingly criticised for their violent content, discredited for their lack of depth and shallow narratives, or accused of poorly masquerading their reiterating structures and alienating nature. In the cannibalistic race for media survival, video games have been increasingly connected to tragic events such as the 2011 Norway attacks in the wake of the Columbine effect, leading to the stigmatisation of their supposed numbing power. Over the last few years, titles such as Grand Theft Auto and Resident Evil have often been under the spotlight due to their graphic and iconic representation of violence, exposed for promoting racist stereotypes and encouraging dysfunctional social behaviour.

The cinematic ‘dispositif’ has been the first response to this call to arms. Since the ‘80s, video games have been represented on the big screen as social destabilisers (Tron, 1982); bringers of entropy and chaos (WarGames, 1983); capable of affecting and manipulating peoples’ minds leading to a process of complete alienation (The Lawnmower Man, 1992); ultimately bearers of complete human annihilation (The Matrix, 1999); or as prophets of the end of free will through the collectivising means of Virtual Reality (Gamer, 2009). In the best and most interesting cases, cinema operated as a thoughtful and insightful critic highlighting the repetitive dynamics and reiterating narratives of this medium (Run Lola Run, 1998), and the immersive violence characterised by kinaesthetic agency and emotional detachment (Bowling for Columbine, 2002).

With irony, Wreck-It Ralph provides a new take on this video game debate, inverting its ‘zombification’ paradigm and discerning the creative potential of the medium from its dull practice. In the film, it is a zombie who, paraphrasing a Street Fighter character, reveals the golden rule to a happy ending in the video game universe: “Labels don’t make you happy. Good! Bad! You must love you!” Just as the characters of the film are bound to a role assigned to them by the system, the persuasive means of electronic entertainment lure the player to uncritically accept the premises of the game, endorsing its tropes through the point of view thereby provided. This binding rule is the central motif of the film, criticising the conventions of social normativity through the metaphor of the video game procedural logic that needs to be subverted for the survival of the very same medium.

Ralph’s decision to break the code by going ‘turbo’ - a term borrowed from video game vocabulary to indicate the act of breaking the game laws and behaving according to one’s interests - leads him to save the video game universe form the tyranny of a dictator, King Candy, who is revealed to be the villainous racer Turbo. Turbo mastered the hacked code, an alteration in the programming flow allowing the irregular control over the game environment. By elaborating on the reflection of social awareness to overcome the subjugating power of video game rules, Wreck-It Ralph represents a valuable new addition to cinematic discourses on video games, capable of capturing the imaginative power of this medium through a sense of aesthetic and iconic nostalgia.

This Alternate Take was published on March 04, 2013.

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