In Wreck-It Ralph, Disney has gone where others fear to
tread, write Rebecca Keegan and Ben Fritz, of the Los
It was when he cast Bowser, the fire-breathing turtle from
Nintendo's Super Mario Bros games, that Rich Moore first
grasped the magnitude of the job he was undertaking.
''That was the huge one,'' he says when we meet at Walt
Disney Studios' Burbank headquarters.''
That's the moment where it felt like: `Oh, my God, I'm
working with Olivier'.''
With animated feature Wreck-It Ralph, Moore is attempting a
feat that has stumped other directors for more than 20 years
- making a video-game movie that appeals both to the
notoriously pernickety crowd of hard-core gamers and to
mainstream family audiences.
Wreck-It Ralph follows Ralph (voiced by John C.
Reilly), the burly villain of an old-school, eight-bit arcade
game called Fix-It Felix, as he attempts to break out of his
bad-guy role by travelling to other games in the arcade where
In addition to Bowser - who appears at a 12-step meeting for
recovering villains called Bad-Anon - Moore populated his
film with characters from the likes of Pac-Man,
Sonic the Hedgehog and Street Fighter in a bid
to draw modern gamers and spark the nostalgia of adults who
dropped coins into arcade machines way back in the 1980s and
It shouldn't be hard to beat the high score in this genre -
movies based on video games have a dismal history among
critics and at the box office. The long list of failures
dates back to 1993's Super Mario Bros (Bowser's last
appearance on the big screen) and includes such not-so-fondly
remembered adaptations as Street Fighter, Doom, Max
Payne and Prince of Persia.
Most suffered from the same problem: It's difficult to adapt
a property in which playability and interactivity matter more
than character and story.''
Video-game movies get a bad rap, and deservedly so,'' said
Kirk Hamilton, a features editor at the video-game blog
The problem we keep running into is that the things that make
games great don't translate across media.''
The idea of a movie set in the world of video games - but not
based on any one in particular - percolated at Disney
Animation Studios for more than a decade under the title Joe
Jump but never got beyond the development stage before Moore,
a veteran director of grown-up-friendly cartoons such as
The Simpsons and Futurama, joined the company
Asked to revive the idea with a new approach, Moore, a
first-time feature director but an experienced gamer, racked
his brain for an interesting conceit.''
Video-game characters do the same job every day. I don't know
how you could tell a story about that,'' Moore recalled
And then it kind of hit me ... What if the main character did
not like his job? If you had a character who is actually
wondering: Is this all there is to life?''Moore's pitch
charmed Disney Animation Studios chief creative officer John
Lasseter, who saw in it the potential to create multiple
settings set in different video games.
Wreck-It Ralph has three fictional video-game worlds, all of
them derived from recognisable types: Fix-It Felix, a
1980s-style ''platformer'' similar to Donkey Kong in
which players jump to avoid obstacles; Hero's Duty, a
first-person shooter akin to Call of Duty and
Halo; and Sugar Rush, a cartoony racing game that
resembles Mario Kart and the popular Korean title
To help design the worlds, Moore relied on Disney Animation
staffers with both artistic and video-game backgrounds.
Evoking the primitive animation of 1980s games in Fix-It
Felix presented a particular challenge.''
Everyone working at the studio is trained so deeply for
naturalistic movement,'' Lasseter said.''
''I kept saying: 'Make it less good!'.''
When it came to casting real video-game characters in the
movie, Lasseter was able to guide the film-makers based on
his own experience. For 1995's Toy Story, he had
struggled to convince toy-makers to lend their characters to
Pixar Animation Studios' first feature film. After it became
a hit - and helped spur sales of Mr Potato Head - toy
companies embraced the sequels, with original holdout Barbie
becoming a star in the sequels.
Procuring recognisable video-game characters was a formidable
task, however - some came with a labyrinthine trail of rights
and others belonged to companies with very clear ideas about
how their intellectual property should be used.
Moore and producer Clark Spencer met representatives from
Japanese game companies including Nintendo, Capcom, Sega and
Namco Bandai and pitched them the movie using storyboard
The film-makers didn't get every character they wanted -
Mario from Nintendo's Super Mario Bros, for instance,
proved too costly to license. But they managed to snare other
characters by being flexible with the rights holders.''
From the beginning we said we want to be true to your
characters so we'll build a model and send it to you and you
can give us notes,'' Spencer said.''
You can say if we've chosen the right colour palette, the
right skin tone.''
Nintendo offered copious notes on Bowser's design, down to
how he holds his coffee cup at the Bad-Anon meeting.
Then came a controversy over the relative sizes of Bowser and
Street Fighter's muscle-bound Russian wrestler
''It started with, well Bowser's bigger than that,'' Moore
So we made Bowser a little bigger. Then the Street
Fighter people said, 'Oh, no, Zangief's much bigger' ...
That was a delicate act in getting it to: `OK, is everyone
happy with how big their characters are?'.''
Originally, Fix-It Felix himself was going to be the film's
protagonist while Ralph (first conceived as ''part boar, part
dog, part baboon and pure failure,'' according to co-writer
Phil Johnson) was his enemy. But the film-makers came to see
Ralph as an outsider in the video game's small town to whom
audiences would relate.''
''Early on we realised that we like the guy who lives in
garbage and throws things at people,'' Johnson said.
''He's way more cool.''
Other metaphors that play off video-game tropes followed. For
instance, Vanellope Von Schweetz, a tart-tongued aspiring
Sugar Rush racer voiced by Sarah Silverman, has a
technological malfunction that occasionally makes her
''The glitch is a physical manifestation of the insecurity
she and Ralph both feel,'' said co-writer Jennifer Lee.
Several of the creative team's favourite ideas didn't make
the 93-minute final cut, including a fourth game world called
Extreme Easy Living 2 that Moore described as a cross between
The Sims and Grand Theft Auto.
But just as video games spawn endless sequels set in new
venues - can anyone even count how many times Mario has
rescued the princess? - Ralph might travel to more
destinations in Litwak's Arcade.''
John Lasseter told us that in Toy Story they had so
many ideas from the first one they had to shelve, but they
all came back for 2 and 3,'' Moore said.
''So if we're lucky and able to do a sequel with more stories
in this universe, we can just pull those ideas back out.''