What is a Disney movie these days?

I know what an animated Disney film was, brand-wise, when I was a kid.  And when Disney reinvented themselves in the post-"Black Cauldron" world as a musical fairy tale factory, that was also a brand that was easy to identify.

But today, Walt Disney Feature Animation has perhaps the most tenuous grasp on identity that I've ever seen from them.  Part of that has to do with all the competition that exists today from Blue Sky Studios and Sony Animation and DreamWorks Animation… basically a bunch of companies that have gotten very good at making movies that play to the audience that was at one point the sole domain of Disney.  Then, of course, there's the in-house issue of Pixar Animation, a powerhouse team of storytellers who have arguably out-Disney'd Disney for the past fifteen years.  It's hard to be the top dog when you no longer are the first pick for animators looking for work, and these days, filmmakers who want to work in animation are probably looking to Pixar the signpost for what it is they want to do.

Walt Disney Animation is looking for a voice these days, and the thing they have to start doing if they're going to ever be the company they once were in terms of importance to the family market is give filmmakers a chance to establish their own voice, to tell stories that have broad appeal but a personal focus, and if that's the model they want to pursue, then "Wreck-It Ralph" is a major step in the right direction.

Rich Moore was a director for both "The Simpsons" and "Futurama," two of TV's best animated comedies, but his career stretches back to the mid-80s as a writer, an animator, a visual designer, and a producer.  "Wreck-It Ralph" is his first feature as a director, and he's got a strong script to work from by Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston.  It's the sort of film where background detail is as much fun as the main action of the movie, and I think that's where Moore's background comes in handy.  A good animation director has to be able to coordinate a number of strong voices and figure out how to best use all of them.  All the visual gags in the world wouldn't matter if the script by Lee and Johnston didn't do such a good job at making Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) such an appealing, sympathetic lead.

Ralph is a character in a video game called "Fix It Felix Jr.," a "Donkey Kong"-style game from the '80s, and in the game, he's the bad guy.  His Sisyphean task is to destroy an apartment building that Fix It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer) always immediately repairs with his magic hammer he inherited from his father.  Theirs is an 8-bit life, and the console they live in, which we see after an opening scene set in an arcade where kids are playing games from many eras worth of video game history.  Ralph has spent so many years watching the residents of the building reward Felix for his work while he has to go sleep in the dump on a bed of bricks every night that he has grown to resent his role in the world.  While it is funny to see Ralph at a support group meeting for video game bad guys at the start of the film (my sons lost their minds when they saw Bowser and one of the Pac-Man ghosts), there's also a very real existential sorrow to Ralph's journey in the film.  He's not looking for money or fame or something that will in some way tangibly improve his life.  All he wants is to be appreciated for his own very specific gifts.  He just wants to be a good guy.  He has been the bad guy so long that he has recoiled from it, and he is desperate to be redefined in the eyes of others.

There is traffic between the games at night when the arcade is closed, but everyone seems beholden to a few basic rules.  If you die out of your game, you don't regenerate.  And you're supposed to return to your own game by morning, obviously.  When Ralph simply doesn't show up one morning, Felix isn't sure what to do, and the kids trying to play the game are baffled about what's happening.  The game is marked "out of order," and a ticking clock is set: if the game cannot be repaired the following morning, then it will be permanently unplugged.  Everyone inside will be gone.  Lost like so many '80s games that no one is playing anymore.  And while the film is fast and funny in the way it handles things, there's a lot of things about it that I find sort of haunting.  


The shorthand the press used when describing "Wreck-It Ralph" during production was "The 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' of video games,'" and as it turns out, I think that's more accurate than just a surface comparison.  If the only thing they had in common was the "hey, look, it's that dude from 'Joust' riding a bird!" factor, I would agree, but "Roger" had a sadness to it, too, both because of Eddie Valiant's inability to allow himself to start living again after the murder of his brother and because of the moment in LA history it represented with the death of public transit in favor of the miserable horror of the freeway.  "Ralph" has that same sort of sadness in how lonely Ralph is, and how joyless he finds life.  "Roger" is different, in one significant way because it's about "real" people interacting with cartoons.  It's set in a live-action physical universe.  In "Ralph," the games escape into other games, not into the real world.  There's no moment with Ralph running around in Times Square or going to a McDonald's.  Instead, Ralph goes into other games looking for a place where he can be a hero, and in doing so, he sets off some seismic changes in the video game universe.

The first game he enters is a first-person shooter because he hears that the soldiers in the game earn medals when they finish a level.  He knocks out a character, puts on his "Halo"-style armor, and then jumps in and tries to survive.  I thought maybe this stuff would turn out to be too intense for my youngest, but that was not remotely an issue.  It's fast and it's loud and it's crazy, but it's not as violent as most real first-person shooters.  It's here where Ralph encounters Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a hard-as-nails warrior, just before he takes off for his second new game, a kart racer called Sugar Rush.  Here's where Ralph meets his match, an exaggeratedly adorable tyke named Vanellope von Schweetz, voiced by Sarah Silverman.  Their relationship defines the rest of the movie, and while there are a number of visual marvels in the film and it has joke after joke in places, what makes "Wreck-It Ralph" stick is the unlikely friendship between this sad sack giant and this glitchy little bundle of attitude.  John C. Reilly has played any number of broken souls over the course of his career, and he plays Ralph at just the right pitch.  Sarah Silverman's stand-up act would not immediately suggest that she be a voice in a Disney film, but she gives Vanellope an edge that makes her more interesting than most animated leads.

Design-wise, it's tremendous fun, and the score by Henry Jackman is augmented by a number of other artists whose work perfectly captures the sound and the mood of video gaming.  This may be one of those cases where one of the first great game-related films isn't actually based on a game, but it doesn't matter because this one works so very well.  It's the same way I'd describe "Robocop" and ""Darkman" as great comic books films even though neither one is technically based on a comic book, they both capture the storytelling energy of comics in execution, in some cases better than actual comic books that were adapted to the big screen.  Here, it is apparent that everyone involved in key choices on the movie are gamers, with a love for the look and the sound and the appeal of everything from "Pong" to the next "Halo" game.  I think the film is moving at times, but never cloying and never overly sentimental.  It is an impressive production, start to finish, and by the end of the film, it feels like one of the most complete original stories that Walt Disney Feature Animation has ever done.  They're making films right now that honor the name of Disney, but they aren't paying homage, and they're not imitations.  Instead, this works because of the same fundamentals that most good films are built on… story, character, a compelling drive that keeps our main character moving forward.  It's a "secret" that Disney seems to be rediscovering with movies like "Bolt," "The Princess and the Frog," "Tangled," and now this one, and I hope it's a gamble that pays off for them.  I may not be able to quickly describe the identity of the new Walt Disney Feature Animation, but I like what I see these days, and I am excited to see where they go from here.

"Wreck-It Ralph" opens in theaters everywhere this Friday, November 2.