Wreck-It Ralph: A Study in Character-Driven Plotting, or How to Do It Right

Before I go any farther, I want to warn you that there will be some spoilers in this post, though I will try to keep them to a minimum.  If you haven’t seen the movie yet, you have been warned.

Image Credit: Filmofilia.com

While on the surface, Wreck-It Ralph may seem like just another cute kids’ movie that parents will tolerate taking their kids to because of all the video game character cameos and in-jokes, it’s a lot deeper than that.  This isn’t some CG movie produced by a factory to make money–this thing has heart and soul.  It has character.

At its heart, Wreck-It Ralph is a very human story about redemption, jealousy, and finding your place in the world.  It’s also a lot different from the action-packed trailer that you’ve been seeing in theaters and online.  While we do spend most of our time with Ralph, there is much less game-jumping than you might expect going in, and Sarah Silverman’s character plays a much larger role in the overall narrative, and most of the movie centers around the conflict between and intersection of these two characters’ motivations.

This movie could have very easily been a pretty mindless, plot-driven affair that was dragged along only by the number of licensed properties that Disney could afford to throw in–and since we’re talking about Disney, that could be, and in fact is, quite a lot–but those licensed characters mostly fill bit-parts and are there to make the parents in the audience laugh.  While the movie would lose something if it lacked those properties, they aren’t a huge part of the plot.  In fact, I would say that for the most part, they’re just set-dressing to give the feeling of an arcade.  The main set-pieces in the movie are, as far as I’m aware, original properties created by Disney to evoke the feeling of well-known arcade games.  We have Fix it Felix Jr., Hero’s Duty, and Sugar Rush, the classic arcade cabinet, the light-gun shooter, and the racing game.

As I mentioned earlier, the trailer would have you believe that the movie is a romp through dozens of video game worlds, and I’m sure that many of you are hoping to run around in some of your favorite properties, the fact is that most of the movie takes place in Sugar Rush, the candy-themed cart-racing game that’s home to Silverman’s character.  Ralph crash-lands there, literally, by accident, and stays there for the remainder of the movie for reasons that are established very early on.  While a lot of things do happen and I never got bored, I was surprised and pleased at how much of the movie explored the characters of the main and supporting cast, and there’s even a bit of back-story that’s introduced through a few choice flash-backs and a “let me tell you about something from before you were born/coded” moment.  That last bit of exposition both demystifies the term “going Turbo,” which is dropped numerous times starting pretty early on.

So what can writers and other story-tellers learn from Wreck-It Ralph?  A lot.  The want-to-be-a-hero/racer motivations that drive Riley and Silverman’s characters could have come off as lame and overdone, but the characters have lots of little traits that humanize them and make viewers care about their driving motivations.  The slow-reveal behind Alan Tudyk’s character is also brilliantly done–he’s a bit of a heel from the start, and that grows over time before the Big Reveal, but the writers give a good reason for why none of the characters in Sugar Rush know his true identity for most of the movie.  I’m still picking that one apart for myself.

Wreck-It Ralph is also a good lesson in building a supporting cast.  Jane Lynch’s character is a good example of this.  At first, she’s just another Jane Lynch character–a soldier version of Sue Sylvester–but as you go on, you learn about her tragic back-story, a reveal that starts humorous and ends up making you feel something.  The romantic sub-plot between her and Felix isn’t delved into very deeply, but that’s not the story we’re in the theater to see, so that fact can be forgiven.

All in all, the movie is well worth watching both to entertain your brain and also as a study in good storytelling.  We give it three thumbs up.

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About Hilary B. Bisenieks

Hilary B. Bisenieks (Biss-en-yex) n. 1. An author of fact, fancy, and opinion based out of Philadelphia. 2, A recent graduate of the Creative Writing program at Warren Wilson college. 3. A man often found wearing a kilt and a top hat, regardless of all but the most extreme weather. View all posts by Hilary B. Bisenieks

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