The James Clayton Column: Wreck-It Ralph blasts through nostalgia

As Wreck-It Ralph invokes videogame nostalgia, James looks at how movies tell compelling stories by delving into a rose-tinted past...

Nostalgia is a powerful drug. It ensnares your senses, alters your mind and makes you act in an irrational or outof-the-ordinary fashion. It is addictive and will consume your entire being once its insidious grip has taken hold.

Your desperate need for a constant fix that’ll dull the pain of immediate reality will soon have you financially depleted, increasingly antisocial and possibly physically and mentally impaired. Narcotic thrills have nasty side effects, kids, so don’t grow up to be a chronic-nostalgic.

As someone who’s dabbled in nostalgia, I’m very aware of how dangerous it can be. One moment you’re going about regular business and everything is reasonable and ‘normal’,  and the next minute you find that you’ve got Star Wars action figures clasped between clammy fingers for no valid reason.

When are you going to find time to play all these retro videogames you’ve suddenly acquired in a blur of geekish excitement? How much money have you spent on these sentimental splurges? You sucker! You got high on the supply of nostalgia that pop culture keeps pushing down your throat! Shame on you! Now, let’s have a look at your dusted-off Fighting Fantasy book collection, because I loved reading them when I was a little boy and seeing them again is bringing back sweet memories of imaginary adventures from aeons ago.

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Where was I before I trekked off on a teary-eyed, rose-tinted field-trip back to childhood? Oh yeah, I was watching Wreck-It Ralph – Walt Disney Animation’s latest CG-animated feature finally arriving for its wider UK release this week. It’s a brilliant film about the titular villain of a vintage arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr, which is a little like a domesticated Donkey Kong with a hokey magic hammer-wielding handyman as the hero instead of Jumpman (aka Proto-Mario). Frustrated and resentful Ralph rebels against his assigned role, and subsequently journeys into the arcade’s other game worlds.

It’s an inspired story idea that no doubt speaks to a lot of people, albeit perhaps more of a niche audience than other Disney works. Anyone with any experience or memory of arcade-style videogames will enjoy Wreck-It Ralph, and it’s interesting to consider as a major mainstream movie that relates directly to a particular generation and a specific subcultural social group. (You might argue that it’s an antisocial group, but then you’d be propagating stereotypes about gamers and showing that you’re possibly ill-informed and prejudiced. You lose and have ten seconds to feel ashamed and decide to start over again, next time playing nicer.)

For people familiar with retro videogaming, who were raised on 8-bit lullabies or who spend hours immersed in pixelated fantasies, Wreck-It Ralph is something of a dream come true on the movie screen. It’s a film that was made for geeks and flashes with enthusiastic exuberance and affection for its subject matter.

Even though I’d only identify myself as a casual gamer (because I don’t play ‘em enough to merit distinction) I was extremely excited about seeing the film, and had an absolute blast with it. Cameos from characters that decorated the backdrop to my childhood – Sonic the Hedgehog, Bowser, the Pac-Man ghosts – and recognisable iconography brought a huge smile to my face.

Even the references and gags built on games I’ve never played – Tapper and Q*bert, for example, and the modern shooters pastiched in the fictional Hero’s Duty – gave me reason to grin, and I appreciated the way the filmmakers played to the audience’s knowledge with wit and good humour. Inevitably, Wreck-It Ralph contains a considerable amount of product placement, but there’s no cynicism in this picture – not one pixel. It feels pure – a cinematic love letter to videogames, the arcade experience and something that a great many geeks adore and understand.

I left the screening levelled up and sped straight home to play Street Fighter. Wreck-It Ralph made me want to load up Super Mario Kart and devote more time to playing the other retro games that made school nights magic back in the day. It’s a prime example of a film that prompts you to get in touch with the repressed inner child and helps you reconnect with fundamentals like fun, imagination and gleeful abandon in escapism just for the sake of it. That’s important, because it’s harder to access these things in the adult world.

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This might sound like a complete chronic-nostalgic catastrophe, and lead you to believe that outsiders who aren’t in the niche may find Wreck-It Ralph to be an inaccessible feature that’s only performing to a particular crowd. That’s not the case, though, and that’s unsurprising as it’s a Disney concoction, for the House of Mouse specialises in weaving tales that translate universally. Ultimately, story is king and the driving forces are the themes rather than the setting and genre trappings.

Toy Story is a film about toys, but it’s not about toys, and likewise, Wreck-It Ralph is a film about games, but it’s not about games, if you get what I mean. It’s also telling that the largest amount of the movie’s running time is spent in the world of racing game Sugar Rush, which looks like Super Mario Kart redesigned by Willy Wonka.

The realm of the delightfully-childish Vanellope von Schweetz is a saccharine fancy-kingdom of chocolate-and-candy scenery populated by cutesy girl racers and a king who acts like he’s auditioning for a part in an Alice In Wonderland pantomime. This kind of aesthetic doesn’t really jive with the stereotypical adult male image of the ‘hardcore game nerd’ that might be reckoned as Wreck-It Ralph’s target demographic.

Wreck-It Ralph and other Disney flicks can be appreciated and enjoyed widely regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or other background variables. It’s always the plot and those universal themes that form the soft centre, and Wreck-It Ralph delves into common concerns of loneliness, self-esteem and finding love and personal fulfilment in the face of seemingly-insurmountable adversity.

There are elements of courageous selflessness and self-sacrifice that underpin every Disney film, and furthermore, Wreck-It Ralph follows the traditional underdog trope of an imperfect or ‘odd’ hero overcoming their perceived deficiency -Vanellope’s glitching paralleling the gimpy fin of Finding Nemo’s Nemo.

All of these find expression in beautiful art that frames a sweet story acted out by original characters that you come to care about. It’s a rich experience that does more than fire you up on a rocketshot of retro chic and there are a lot of recent movies – both animated and live-action – that are managing to successfully meld nostalgia and human spirit in this manner.

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See, for instance, stop-motion animations Frankenweenie and ParaNorman – homages to old-school horror flicks imbued with fresh heart and creative energy as touching family-friendly creations for contemporary audiences. Likewise, Hugo is a eulogy to silent cinema and Super 8 loves Spielbergian sci-fi, but there’s emotional heft beneath the allusive tributes and borrowed stylings.

For more adult material, observe how Skyfall dredged up all the memories for 007’s 50th anniversary but boldly established itself up as a solid starting point for the series’ future. Also worthy of note is martial arts geekout The Man With The Iron Fists from kung fu fanboy The RZA, which imposes a colourful customised mythos and hip hop style onto the generic chopsocky template.

Django Unchained, meanwhile, is another prime, sublime Tarantino postmodern pulp fiction that mixes multiple genres and the auteur’s enthusiasms into a fantastic original tale that makes poignant, sophisticated points. These filmmakers pay tribute to their influences but transcend them or, at least, don’t wear them as chains but rather creatively re-appropriate them for fresh, inspired ends.

I’d say that this is the key to the new Star Wars sequels and rebooted franchises such as RoboCop and Conan The Barbarian. By wielding nostalgia effectively as a weapon with real muscle, might and soul power underneath, moviemakers can find tremendous success (artistic and commercial) and make resonant pictures with staying power.

Wreck-It Ralph is an excellent example of how to achieve this harmonious synthesis with geekish nostalgia operating as a foundation upon which to craft something of substance and value beyond the superficial. If you can creatively consolidate past, present and future in well-made, entertaining and engaging pictures, you’ll power past chronic nostalgia, defeat the end of level boss and rack up incredible high scores. Win!

James Clayton is going to hit the arcade and go eat some ghosts in the hope it helps him clear all the chronic nostalgia out of his system. You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.

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