People like to see the same plots rehashed over and over again. That’s how James Bond became such a long and successful series, isn’t it? Following Pixar’s success with Toy Story, the animation studio looked to follow a sort of pattern, but it wasn’t so much in terms of the storyline as the setup of having an ensemble of characters where each was representative of a different kind of some such (usually titular) thing. Toy Story starred different toys, then A Bug’s Life involved different types of bugs, Monsters, Inc. involved different types of monsters, Finding Nemo had different fish and other sea creatures and Cars had, of course, different models of automobile. Fortunately, Pixar has gotten a bit more inventive with their basic pitches, but now Disney has borrowed the model for Wreck-It Ralph. It could have easily been titled “Video Game Life” or “An Arcade Story.”
There is a bit more to it than this, and in fact I was surprised to find that a lot of the movie is more about sweets than video games, especially where Alice in Wonderland-esque puns are concerned (the “laughing taffy” made me laugh). Overall, I had a good time watching the movie and appreciate the greatest addition to the Disney Princesses roster in years. But it didn’t really feel like something that will become a “Disney Classic,” and not just because our grandchildren will have no understanding of what arcade games are in a way they could relate to it. It just feels too much like a recycling of the Toy Story movies — especially Toy Story 2 — with more than the setup translated to video game characters. I’ve itemized some of the parallels (some of which include spoilers) below.
The old and unwanted - This has been a major theme for the Toy Story films, with Woody dealing with newer toys replacing him, his falling apart in the sequel and the whole gang being donated in the third film, and it carries over very easily to the video game world, with Ralph’s game turning 30, the fear all over the arcade of having your game unplugged and Ralph’s inability to fit in in his own video game world. Bonding with other villains in group therapy gives him almost the sort of belonging Woody felt when he met the other “Woody’s Roundup” toys. Another character was very reminiscent to me: Q-Bert, the little guy with a language barrier who represents that fear of being unplugged, correlates to Wheezy the penguin, the little guy in Toy Story 2 with a speech issue who represents the fear of being put away on a shelf and eventually sold in a yard sale.
The fellow outcast - When Woody first meets Jessie, the cowgirl from “Woody’s Roundup,” she’s loud and rowdy and clearly annoys the crap out of him. The first encounter between Ralph and Vanellope in Wreck-It Ralph is very similar. And he wants little to do with her. Eventually, though Woody and Jessie bond over the fact that they’re old toys whose owners apparently outgrew them, and Ralph and Vanellope bond in a way that the villain support group doesn’t provide Ralph, because like him she isn’t so much a villains as she too is a hated element in her own game. Ralph might even be a sort of glitch himself, since he becomes a bit too self-aware for his own good and jeopardizes his game.
The New Model - In the first Toy Story, Woody and his gang cope with the introduction of a shiny new toy, Buzz Lightyear, who gets more play than the old figures because he’s a high-tech sci-fi toy with a cool battle suit. In Wreck-It Ralph, an equivalent may be Jane Lynch‘s Sergeant Calhoun, as she’s from a high-tech sci-fi game in which she wears a battle suit. She’s tough, seems to think she’s better than the rest of the characters and ultimately softens up during a mission to save Ralph. The main difference is that neither Ralph nor any other game characters appear to feel very threatened by the new kid in the arcade.
The Deceptive Villain - Technically, the main Wreck-It Ralph villain, King Candy, is always a bad guy. But he’s not always seen that way to his subjects in the Sugar Rush game or to Ralph in one moment. He does get much worse in the end, however, when he is revealed to be someone entirely different than he appears. While it’s hard to think of anything else but the Mad Hatter from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland when he’s on screen (Alan Tudyk does a great, very obvious Ed Wynn impression), King Candy is also relative to both the double-crossing Stinky Pete from Toy Story 2 and Lots-O’-Huggin’-Bear from Toy Story 3.
The Microcosm - We never see life outside of Litwak’s Arcade, as opposed to how the Toy Story characters often get out of Andy’s house. But we can assume that the characters in Wreck-It Ralph have doppelgangers in other instances of their game in other locations. In Toy Story 2, there is the moment when Buzz comes across a whole bunch of other Buzzes. Do they have the same personality? On a basic level they do, and similarly other Ralphs and Felix Jr.s and Calhouns and Q-Berts, etc., are likely not much different in other universes. The thing that makes this more a link with the Toy Story movies than any of Pixar’s others involving the same kind of setup is that no other titles involve branded and mass-manufactured figures that would have doubles the way toys and video game characters do. Even the cars in Cars are more individual personalities than they are one of many like models — if anything their vehicle make is like their race. Movieline’s Jen Yamato even pondered the possibility in her interview with John C. Reilly, who supposed this could be answered in the sequel. Yes, just like with the Toy Story sequel.