A children’s movie brought me to tears.
It’s not how it sounds. It’s not because I’m a simpering, overly-sensitive manchild, although I am. And it’s not because the movie, Wreck-It Ralph, is anything stellar: the film features some real, resonant moments of emotional punctuation, but these are mostly capping off long stretches of average, goofy kiddie-fare (lots of compound insults featuring words like “stink,” “booger,” and “underwear”).
Wreck-It Ralph wrecked me because not ten minutes into its gorgeously realized conceit, it became obvious that someone had made a movie for me– not the “me” of today, exactly, but the fun-loving kid within. My 16-bit spirit animal.
There’s something weird that happens when we reach maturity. People talk about children “putting away their toys,” as if those toys don’t just get put away by the parents and collect dust as soon as boys notice girls and vice versa. Stuff like Beanie Babies and Small Soldiers action figures occupy a very specific bubble in the life of a growing child. Barring the occasional Woody or Buzz Lightyear, they’re momentary fixations. Thus, the natural order is sustained and from the discarded toy box emerge men and women.
But what happens when the toy grows into adulthood?
Games were a momentary fixation, once. Atari sat alongside toy brands like Mattel and Fisher-Price. Then, Stephen Spielberg brought his sickle down on the wills of young gamers everywhere. E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, the video game, decimated life as we knew it in a brilliant flash of discordant game design. The 2600 was burned in effigy as fallout rained down in pieces of yellow, orange, and brown.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t quite that bad (although the real story is much more interesting). The point is this: the modern video game almost never happened: it almost wilted like a Cabbage Patch; it might have lasted as long as the average Teddy Ruxpin cassette tape. It didn’t, though. Another toy company, Nintendo, dared to bring their Family Computer overseas as the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was accompanied by a plastic gun and a useless robot and arrived as a young medium seeking redemption, biding its time in a cardboard Trojan horse with “TOY” scrawled on every side. Nintendo games sparked the imaginations of children everywhere, the sparking of children everywhere lit a fire underneath the likes of Sega and NEC, and the rest is happy history.
That brings us back to my man-tears.
There is a point early on in Wreck-It Ralph, after the initial, dazzling parade of video game character cameos, when a sullen Ralph gives a cherry to the cabinet-less Q*bert (because video games feel hunger, I guess?), who sits dejected in the squalor of Game Central Station, the arcade’s connecting “hub” where peppy sprites and polygonal heroes bustle between their respective games. Q*bert’s home, coated by a thin film of neglect, has been carted from Litwak’s Arcade. As he gazes up at Ralph with the starved eyes of a Victorian orphan, one can almost hear the mourning of digitized violin.
Honestly, the interaction isn’t meant to let loose the floodgates. It introduces the viewer to the concept of video game vagrants, instills a bit of respect for goodly baddie Ralph, and stirs a pint of sadness for Q*bert’s predicament.
Q*bert’s predicament punched me straight in my ventricles. In this and every other scene of Wreck-It Ralph (the races of Sugar Rush, the rail-shooter gags of Hero’s Duty) is embedded a palpable concern and deep love for the video game medium. The animators, the director– everyone involved in bringing Ralph to virtual life clearly regards Q*bert’s plight with genuine gravity. The scene isn’t extended with manipulative cloying. It concludes briskly and doubles as a referential joke, but because the movie’s sense of care for its subject is so obvious to adult gamers, many of whom are sharing bits of their childhood with their own children, the emotion sticks.
I cried because I am not a glitch.
In 2010, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World bombed gloriously. The movie, a bizarrely invigorating sonnet dedicated to the most intimate crevices of video game culture, found instant cult embrace but could not earn so much as a side-hug from mainstream moviegoers. Scott Pilgrim truly had versus-ed the world, and it appeared that the world had won. Apparently, the general populace was not quite ready for a blockbuster movie about video games rather than about selling them.
In 2012, Wreck-It Ralph earned $49.1 million in its first weekend, double-jumping over expectations. Now, maybe Ralph is enjoying the slower pace of Little League compared to the Major League challenges which prevented Scott Pilgrim from reaching its considerably older target demographic. To understand my optimism, consider the following:
Wreck-It Ralph is a kid’s movie. It’s a pretty decent one at that, lovingly crafted by a video gaming “old guard” and presented to a new generation. DVDs of Wreck-It Ralph will proliferate in households the world over; it will be some child’s favorite movie; that child will grow up regarding “video game” as a viable medium. The child who loved Wreck-It Ralph, who first watched Wreck-It Ralph with her own game-loving parent, might one day introduce Ralph to her children. He might be their favorite, too. It’s a beautiful, romantic cycle.
The film falls flat in quite a few places. Some jokes are lame. Some references are forced. A blunt, unsophisticated theme of acceptance and self-love is regurgitated through simple dialogue.
None of that matters. Wreck-It Ralph‘s message, especially as it pertains to video games and the individuals who have grown up alongside them, is delivered with ringing clarity through the very sincerity of the film. Wreck-It Ralph is true to itself. It’s a movie about games–kids enjoying games and games enjoying kids enjoying games. It’s a movie about fun.
Games excel in fun. They’re super effective at it. “Fun” doesn’t have to mean superficial or anti-artistic, either. Should we need to create a less frivolous-sounding word to describe this level of engagement? Are we truly desperate for games to be recognized as a “medium” by some mainstream “authority”? Perhaps we should enjoy the slow, measurable progress as the rest of human culture grinds to catch up. As Ralph owns up to his “bad guy” core at the romp’s cataclysmic climax, so does Wreck-It Ralph assert that The Video Game should worry less about following in others’ footsteps and forge its own path, for the sake of fun.
Fun will carry this adolescent art form into adulthood.
As I broke from the theater and into the evening chill, I felt nothing but warmth. I came alone and left with company.
Nearing the finish line of the movie’s final lap, Vanellope von Schweetz, a cute-as-gumdrop-buttons kart racer exiled for her buggy behavior, ends up relishing the glitch she previously regarded as a disability. She harnesses her sequence-breaking quirk to instantaneously skip ahead of the competition. She bounds down her own, inimitable road to success. Cliché, sure, but it triggered a memory in my personal debug menu:
I have a friend who spends his races in Mario Kart 64 ramming into walls. He’s looking for the game’s seams. I tear ahead, chastise him, tell him he’s playing the game “wrong.”
He shakes his head and answers, “It’s in the game. It’s fair.” With one final push, his kart slips through a solid wall and leaves me a lap behind.
He thinks it’s fun.