Wreckin' It with Wreck-It Ralph at El Capitan: Review

Wreck-It Ralph is fun, funny, moving, laugh out loud clever, and nostalgic (but be warned - it's likely to be too scary for younger viewers). This latest film from Disney Feature Animation is a love letter to video games old and new. When my daughter and I decided to see it, our choice was for a theater was clear; we hopped in the car and made the journey to the "happiest theater on earth" - Hollywood's El Capitan.

The pre-shows really make El Capitan stand out from other theaters; for Wreck-It Ralph, the fun begins with some audience participation.  Volunteers are chosen to go onstage to engage in some Felix-style building followed by Ralphian wreckage. (Kids stack foam bricks then knock ‘em down). But the big excitement comes when the stars of the movie come out to get the audience revved up. Yes, Ralph and Vanellope Von Schweetz appear live on El Capitan's stage (and bust a few moves). 

After the lights go down, audiences are treated to Paperman, a sweet animated short about a “missed connection” that has been shortlisted for an Academy Award in the Best Animated Short category. Or, to share my daughter’s take, “Mommy, is this the Ralph movie?”


Both Paperman and Wreck-It Ralph are in 3D. This was my first time seeing a movie in 3D (and needless to say my daughter’s as well).  I barely noticed the glasses, and more importantly, my daughter seemed oblivious to having them on as well. (Out of curiosity, I took them off a few times to see what the movie looked like without them. Answer: blurry.)

So, on to the main event:  what about Ralph?  Ralph (John C. Reilly) has spent 30 years as the bad guy in the old school arcade game Fix It Felix, Jr.. Day after day, quarter after quarter, the oversized oaf obligingly wrecks things. (In case you’re not familiar with wrecking, it generally consists of smashing things into piles of bricks). Enter Fix it Felix, Jr. (Jack McBrayer). A few whacks of his magic hammer and everything is good as new. The citizens of Niceland hail Felix as a hero but barely give Ralph a nod. Each night he goes home to a dump (literally, it’s a dump). The final insult comes when he’s not even invited to the Niceland party for the 30th anniversary of the game. Burn!

Ralph decides that the way to win over the Nicelanders is to earn his own hero’s medal (the prize good guys get for winning a game). He sets out to find opportunities in other video games, which makes for some marvelous visual comparisons of 8-bit classics vs. the cutting edge graphics of modern game worlds.

Ralph’s travels take him first to Hero’s Duty, a first-person shooter game set in a hostile alien environment. Jane Lynch (Glee) voices the no-nonsense sergeant tasked with exterminating the malevolent bugs. Many young children are going to be unprepared for the harsh realism and bloodshed of this game.   

Ralph then finds himself in Hero’s Duty’s polar opposite: Sugar Rush, a kart racing game in a candy-coated, supersweet world. It’s here that Ralph meets Vanellope Von Schweetz, (voice of Sarah Silverman). Vanellope is a glitch. She blinks in and out, and suffers from programming imperfections. Vanellope’s dream is to participate in a Sugar Rush race. Ralph teams up with Vanellope, albeit reluctantly at first, as each struggles to overcome their obstacles and realize heroic dreams.

There are some powerful messages about being an outsider and an underdog. Ralph is feared and shunned as a bully because he is big and destructive, but he’s basically a good, somewhat oversized guy who just wants to be accepted. Vanellope is a spunky outsider whose glitchiness can be seen as a metaphor for some kind of disability or difference. The audience loves these characters and feels their frustration and heartbreak at the treatment they receive from the other characters. Vanellope’s situation in particular may look all too familiar to kids who have been bullied or treated cruelly.

The movie is rated PG-13; no one is trying to pull it off as kiddie fare.  But the frustration for parents is that so much of this movie appeals to the younger viewers. Seriously: a brightly-colored, candy-coated world with cutesy characters and sweets-based racing cars, what could draw in the kids more? But the fanciful world is paired with one of alien infestation and hard-core warfare.

Wreck-It Ralph is most likely too scary for younger or more sensitive members of your party. My 4 year old was unhappy with the Hero’s Duty scenes, but what really broke her heart was when characters treated others cruelly.  I have spoken with a number of parents whose kids (some as old as 8) had a similar response.

Bottom line: if you have a younger child who’s drawn to the movie primarily for the Sugar Rush characters, skip the movie and go straight to the merchandising. A Vanellope racer under the tree can be a win-win solution. Wait til the movie comes out on DVD so you can fast forward to the they-all-lived-happily-ever-after scenes.

For viewers old enough to handle the harsher scenes, Wreck-It Ralph is a winner. Clearly, this was a movie written by folks who know and love video games.  Gamers are sure to enjoy references to video games old and new.  There were a number of jokes and sight gags that got laughs only from the over-30’s in the crowd (many of whom were there without children). Most of it went over my head,  but I did spot references to Q*Bert and Pac Man.

The extras at El Capitan continue after the show.  In the downstairs lobby, fans can find a ton of concept art, the miniature models that the artists used as reference, and a few photo ops and games. On the main level, movie goers can play on a working model of the Fix it Felix Jr arcade game.  Best thing ever: no quarters needed*!  (Which was good news for us, as our Felix went through his allotted lives in approximately 25 seconds.) All of which adds up to a powerful argument for seeing Wreck-It Ralph at the El Capitan.

* - You can also play the game online.

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