A month or so ago, one of my TGO beta testers sent me an email: “Jeff, you must see this movie. And not because it’s fun. ‘Nuff said.” Personal issues kept me from renting it until the other night.
Now I understand.
The fantasy premise of Wreck-It Ralph is brilliant: In a video arcade full of coin-op console machines, the characters in the video games all live secret lives when the arcade closes and the lights go out. Each video game console is a separate universe, connected with all the others through a network that operates over the power lines. Game characters can visit other games via the network, and hang out with the characters there. Cross-game friendships are not only possible, but common. Picture going out for drinks with QBert and Sonic the Hedgehog. (Both make cameos in the film.)
Wreck-It Ralph is the Bad Guy in a game starring Fix-It Felix. Ralph wrecks a building from the top down by beating on things with his ginormous fists, and the game players try to stay ahead by steering Felix and his magic golden hammer, which fixes everything it touches. Felix rescues the inhabitants of his building, and when he gets ahead of Ralph’s mayhem, is rewarded with pies and, ultimately, golden medals. It’s a classic (and I assume fictional) game in the late 80s Donkey Kong style, with Ralph shaped and sized a great deal like Donkey Kong himself.
Ralph is bummed. Everybody loves Felix, who gets pies and medals and sleeps in a penthouse in his building. Ralph, by contrast, lives in the nearby garbage dump and gets no recognition for his hard work, beyond getting thrown off the top of the building when the player completes the level. Ralph attends a weekly support group for video game bad guys, including a zombie, Satan, and one of the Pac Man ghosts. (There are several others that may be real, though not being a gamer I didn’t recognize them.) He wants recognition, and goes off looking for other games that might conceivably grant him a medal for his contributions.
He soon finds one: Hero’s Duty, which is a sort of supercharged Doom or Quake. The other characters are shaped just like him, so he mugs a character for his armor and goes off to fight deadly cyberbugs that are in reality viruses that can infect any video game. The commander of the platoon is the sleek and improbably proportioned Calhoun, a butt-kicking cannon-packing woman warrior with a tragic backstory: Her fiancee was eaten by one of the bugs. Ralph earns a medal (he’s great at trashing bugs) but accidentally releases one of the bugs into another game universe, a kart race targeted at preteen girls where everything (including the karts) is made of candy.
Ralph goes hunting for the bug, and eventually redeems himself by helping snotty little kart driver girl Vanellope. Vanellope contains corrupt code, and “glitches” every so often, flashing into a silhouette of ones and zeroes. Ralph and Felix and Calhoun team up to fight the cyberbugs and repair Vanellope’s damaged code and memory. The plot is a good deal more complex and interesting than that, but I don’t want to spoil it too much. There’s a rogue game character in disguise, a short but intriguing visit “behind the graphics” to the game’s code (which looks like a vast 3-D structure chart) and so many gamer references that I’m sure I got maybe 25% at best. For ongoing tension you have a Diet Coke-filled volcano plugged with thousands upon thousands of…Mentos. Yikes.
I don’t consider Wreck-It Ralph brilliant in the sense that Shrek and How to Train Your Dragon are brilliant, but it’s lots of fun and well worth a night’s rental, especially if you have tweens. (Toddlers may find some parts of it a little too scary.) What my TGO beta-tester was talking about were the parallels to the virtual universe I created in TGO and populated with AI characters created to do various jobs, with homes and private lives outside their virtual workplaces. I even have a cannon-packing warrior woman who is an executive assistant by day, and later discovers a first-person shooter game built into her kernel in which she is one of the game skins.
In TGO, one of my AIs fails to do his job well enough to satisfy his creators, and is ordered to go place himself in archival storage. On his way to his own slot, he passes the doors to storage slots containing other failed AIs:
Other names on other doors didn’t ring a bell. Maria, Randall, Tanner, Judith, all archived before his time. Here and there was a name he did recognize: William, who had been training to work in tech support and had joined him several times for doughnuts and coffee. Bones, a Class Four animated skeleton who worked the crowds in a panel at a large amusement park, and off company time enjoyed reciting Victorian poetry. Robert had heard him perform Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” in a Tooniverse coffee shop one evening and found it very moving. Alas, Bones frightened children so much that his product was pulled from the market.
Like Ralph, Robert redeems himself by defending his friends, and by simply going back to what he was created to be. (Robert’s ending isn’t as happy as Ralph’s–hey, this is a Disney movie–but the parallels were striking.)
None of this worries me. I didn’t invent the notion of AIs operating in a virtual world, and neither did Disney. (Granting that they were early in the field, with Tron.) If anything, I felt validated. I first raised the question in 1981: If we create an AI capable of introspection, can the AI suffer? And is the suffering real? I didn’t originate that issue either, but it’s haunted me for decades. I explore it within a humorous framework in TGO, just as Disney does in Wreck-It Ralph. That may be one reason I enjoyed the movie as much as I did.
Recommended, for gonzo imagination, gorgeous animation, and attention to detail. Many wonderful small touches, and enough pee-your-pants laughs to carry you past the setpieces and the boring parts. (We spend a little too much time in the candy universe.) The voice acting was not stellar, with the exception of Firefly‘s Alan Tudyk channeling Ed Wynn’s evil twin. The score is almost nonexistent, though Owl City’s “When Can I See You Again?” is catchy, and completely wasted running over the credits. But enough carping. Rent it, call in your gang to watch it with you, and have fun.
Just remember to hit the bathroom before the Oreo cookies show up. ‘Nuff said.