Taking back the controls

In Wreck-It Ralph, Disney has gone where others fear to tread, write Rebecca Keegan and Ben Fritz, of the Los Angeles Times.

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 he lives.

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 '90s.

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 Kotaku.''

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 in 2008.

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 thinking.''

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 KartRider.

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 panels.

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 Zangief.''

''It started with, well Bowser's bigger than that,'' Moore said.''

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 disappear.''

''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.''