Wreck-It Ralph smashed box office records for a Disney animated film in its opening weekend, and won over critics and audiences no less. With its creativity, heart and passionate storytelling, Wreck-It Ralph signals Walt Disney Animation Studios is back in the game, so to speak. This edition of Disney In Depth will explore what has led up to this new hit for the studio, as well as what awaits.
Many individuals say the Disney Renaissance began with 1989’s The Little Mermaid, with following entries Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King reaching even greater heights – everyone seems to leave out the forgotten The Rescuers Down Under. Regardless, this represented a period of unparalleled imagination and inspiration within the studio, continuing for several years to follow. Then came the slump. Audiences were no longer interested in musicals, so it seemed, and Disney animation switched gears into the sci-fi realm with productions like Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet. Computer animation emerged, and with that advent Disney entered the new arena with misses like Chicken Little and the awkward-yet-smart Meet the Robinsons. None of these performed all that wonderfully. It had appeared as though Disney lost its touch. But the studio had some exciting developments up their sleeve.
The Princess and the Frog aimed to start the new renaissance, with this marking the return of the “classic Disney animated musical.” Featuring attractive tunes by Randy Newman and gorgeous art direction, this seemed like the perfect formula for a success story. Unfortunately the New Orleans-set fantasy failed to eclipse more than $105 million domestically. While it made back its budget and grossed well internationally, something appeared to be missing: novelty. The movie failed to resonate as well with contemporary audiences, and certainly that must have encouraged Disney to place even more of a modern spin on the Rapunzel story for Tangled.
Tangled could have been a messy movie with no sense of awareness of its more current context set in a fantastical atmosphere, but instead it embraced that fact. Much like how Shrek productively integrated fashionable humor in a timeless storybook land, Tangled accomplished the same task and perhaps even made a bigger difference for Disney than Shrek did for DreamWorks. Tangled reenergized the studio and its following of moviegoers, injecting cleverness with charm. While Winnie the Pooh, its successor film in the Disney Animation Studios canon, could not draw major audiences, its ambitions were not high. It served the purpose of appealing to its fanbase and drawing positive reviews.
And now we have Wreck-It Ralph, perhaps as entertaining as Tangled – and tied with that film as the best product Walt Disney Animation Studios has devised since The Emperor’s New Groove. This is pure fun at its best, and thanks to John Lasseter’s influence, we have those elements of Toy Story and other Pixar creations that made them such sensations. Ever since Lasseter came in to shape Meet the Robinsons’ story, the following productions have progressively increased in quality. Pixar’s gift has always been in appealing to audiences of all ages, implementing the unstoppable cinema combo of loveable characters in engaging environments and pushing the limits of animation. With Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, Walt Disney Animation Studios has done just that.
Wreck-It Ralph literally barges in on the 30-year-anniversary party for his game.
Ralph is as relatable as protagonists come, even if he is a monstrous video game villain with some temper issues. John C. Reilly offers some wonderful voice work as the good bad guy, and his journey to realize his full potential and reach acceptance makes for a gripping storyline. Sarah Silverman’s Vanellope von Schweetz could be seen as cloying attention, but the character’s sibling-like relationship with Ralph is heart-tugging. Jack McBrayer infuses his hospitable allure into the kindly Fix-It Felix, Jr., thus causing his infatuation with the abrasive Sgt. Calhoun (as voiced by the comical Jane Lynch) to be even more entertaining. How funny to find a tiny, sweet guy fall for the high-definition warrior woman who shouts out phrases like, “‘fear’ is a four-letter word, ladies!” What an odd romance. I think my favorite character from the film, though, is Mad Hatter’s sweet-fixated cousin, King Candy. Well, Alan Tudyk’s King Candy may not be related to the Alice in Wonderland figure, but they sure sound alike.
Okay, so the characters are enjoyable and the storyline is extremely entertaining, but what about the environments? As I mentioned, setting is key, and in Wreck-It Ralph’s case there are four main locations that possess some cool originality. Game Central Station, set inside a power strip, is like the video game equation of a hub for all characters to mingle and visit other places. Absolutely mesmerizing. The world of 30-years-strong Fix-It Felix, Jr. is so magnetic in its old-fashioned simplicity, whereas the combat-filled Hero’s Duty excites with its weird Cy-Bugs. Sugar Rush symbolizes the neatest and most inspired of them all. I would argue this is one of the niftiest places Disney has ever created – in any of their animated films. Everything, and I mean every aspect of this place, contains sweets. Even many of its citizens are snacks. Yum. Like many others, I am waiting until its home release to freeze-frame scenes and pick out all of the little delicious details. Wreck-It Ralph also achieves high marks on its direction and stunning visuals, especially with the minor cues, such as how the Nicelanders move more fragmented than the rest. Nice touch.
But the focus should be on Wreck-It Ralph’s potential. In its first three days alone it earned an impressive $49 million in the United States. That sets it up to gross potentially as much as $200 million domestically, assuming word-of-mouth remains strong and it encourages moviegoers to catch the movie a second time around. With no family competition until DreamWorks’ Rise of the Guardians enters the theatres in a few short weeks, that should help, too. This is the type of movie that begs for a sequel, and even more, a theme park attraction. Disney should be dreaming of all of the possibilities in how they can utilize these characters.
Some video game characters like these guys have become homeless, now residing in Game Central Station.
Wreck-It Ralph’s early success sets the standards high for Walt Disney Animation Studios’ forthcoming feature, the eagerly-awaited Frozen. I shared how exciting the film looks in my earlier Disney In Depth edition from this August, and the anticipation keeps growing, as Den of Geek listed it as one of the must-see films from next year. On a recent episode of the Magical Definition podcast, the hosts mentioned that Disney internally thinks this will be spectacular. I certain hope so, and think the combined talents of its director (Chris Buck, co-director of Tarzan), the featured voice cast (Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel), songwriters (Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez of The Book of Mormon), and other individuals will make for a fantastic film.
And the excitement continues, as Disney will be releasing another animated feature the following November. An untitled production enters theatres on November 7, 2014. What that title is remains as unknown as what the story is about, but guesses are, if Disney’s recent track record is any suggestion, this project will be really good.
This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Return back next week for another edition of Disney In Depth. Catch alerts for upcoming editions of the column by following me on Twitter. Have a good week!