Building a film around product placement is often a risky move. Without an extremely experienced and talented team at the helm, the finished product can come off as a cheap cash grab with no effort made to become anything other than a money vacuum. There’s a strange dichotomy between product films in that there seems to be no middle ground with them- either the movie turns out surprisingly well due to a creative story and clever writing (an example of this would be The Lego Movie), or it bombs horrifically and goes down in the archives of history as one of the worst failures in the history of cinema with the likes of Mac and Me or The Emoji Movie. The practice of inserting new characters and icons into already-established character worlds is still one that is rough around the edges- but when it does work, it can be a unique film with many characters from different universes coming together. One example of this would be Wreck-It Ralph.
Wreck-it-Ralph was an interesting film in that it played with the ins and outs of video games, and managed to get so many different properties into the picture that it was hard to not find something to laugh at. The idea of ‘What X Does While You’re Away’ isn’t a new one, as Toy Story can vouch, but rarely was it done with already established brands. The original film took place in an arcade, where Ralph, the villain of an old arcade machine, found himself feeling distraught with his lifestyle. He briefly flees his game to try to become a hero in first-person shooter game Hero’s Duty, only to inadvertently place the hero of his game (Fix-it-Felix) and its inhabitants in danger. Eventually he bonds with Vanellope, an outcast in the newest game around (a racing game called Sugar Rush) due to a glitch in her system, and the two work to thwart a dastardly virus. As is typical of a film not anticipating a sequel, everything works out in the end: Ralph becomes the hero he wanted to be, Vanellope is accepted by the other characters for her imperfections, and even Felix starts a relationship with Calhoun, the hot-tempered protagonist of Hero’s Duty. Of course, due to the retro game feel of the film and the in-jokes, it was extremely well-received. So when the time came to make a sequel, you had to wonder: where do you go from the age of arcade cabinets? To the next biggest advancement in technology: the internet!
It’s been a while since the events of the first film, and everyone seems to be living a good life. But after an accident at Vanellope’s arcade cabinet resulting in an important game part being damaged, the entire population of Sugar Rush is forced to relocate. As it turns out, there’s one copy of the necessary part remaining somewhere on the internet- and it’s up for auction on Ebay. The arcade just happens to have set up a wifi network, so Ralph and Vanellope journey into the internet in order to retrieve it. After accidentally placing a massive bet on the wheel, the two suddenly need to make a lot of money fast- and how better to do that than experience and participate in all the wondrous things the internet has to offer? While Ralph is willing to make the sacrifice for his friend, becoming the newest internet meme as he does so, Vanellope has other things on her mind- she’s discovered Slaughter Race, an online copy of Twisted Metal that’s full of chaos, unpredictability, and mad racing skills- in other words, a place she’d like to stay in, leaving Sugar Rush- and Ralph- behind.
While on the surface, this seems like a bad idea for a film, especially with the recent trend of disastrous tie-ins that shows no sign of stopping, there’s a lot of creativity here that isn’t seen in many other films like this. I like how a lot of the internet is displayed as a huge, seemingly infinite plane of opportunities and events. There’s references to actual sites such as YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and many other social media sites- but luckily, they don’t some off as major plot points (aside from Ebay) and more as little wink-and-nods towards internet culture. I especially like the ways that clickbait ads are represented (as the internet equivalent of sign twirlers who shout at you to go to their site). Even the Dark Net gets a mention, as the seedy underbelly of the internet where shady, worm-like virus dealers are willing to crash sites just to test out their latest strains. There’s references to loot hunting (the practice of selling items in video games for real money), going viral, and many other web in-jokes that may take a while to see (when Ralph is at a very deep area of the internet, you can briefly see a sign reading ‘DIAL-UP’), but are a treat to find.
(Side Note: The main video-sharing site in the film is called ‘Buzztube’, but later in background shots and quotes it’s established Youtube exists in this universe too. Why make up a fake largest video-sharing site if you already have the rights to use the REAL largest video-sharing site?)
The relationship between Ralph and Vanellope is also very well-drawn out in this film, and it’s nice to see a movie that focuses more on a friendship than the typical ‘true love’ plot line that Disney tends to follow with movies (although they have been better about this in recent years). There’s good messages here about finding where you belong and the idea that friends may not share the same dreams. Ralph coming to terms with the idea of losing Vanellope as a pal is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, and an important thing anyone who has made connections similar to Ralph and his friend should understand.
One other aspect of the film is the way it is animated, and how the different types of media used each have their own styles. The film can quickly go from an 8-bit digital scene to the realistic graphics we know from today’s games. Characters are designed the way they would be pictured during their time of creation, and the size and shape of some locations seems to be based on the popularity of the site (where Ebay seems like an endless house filled with hundreds of auctions, the clickbait site Ralph visits is just a dingy mobile home). Small details, sure, but they make the world much more visually interesting for the viewer.
As far as sequels go, this one works on many levels- appealing to the modern generation can be a risky gambit, but this film pulls through by being focused more on telling a story than advertising the product. The story, animation and characters are all likable and create a unique portrays of the digital world, where the problem is solved by the characters and not a Deus Ex Machina like other films of the genre (The Emojii Movie had the cast’s lives saved by Twitter). It’s a special take on the genre, and definitely one worth checking out.