Game on! Rich Moore evokes childhood arcade games in 'Wreck-It Ralph'

You only have to watch the opening sequence of Disney’s new videogame-themed animated comedy Wreck-It Ralph to see that it’s the product of someone who spent much of his childhood standing in neon-bathed arcades, feeding a bottomless stack of quarters into machines bearing the image of such characters as Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Frogger. And, indeed, that’s how the film’s director Rich Moore says he spent a good chunk of his childhood. “Wreck-It Ralph is a love letter to those arcade games, one that came with a lot of experience and a lot of quarters,” he says, on the phone from California.

All of those 25-cent coins paid off, because in Wreck-It Ralph, Moore replicates those 8-bit entertainments of yesteryear with expert precision through the game-within-the-movie, a fictional arcade staple called Fix-It Felix, Jr., in which a hammer-carrying handyman restores an apartment building that’s being smashed to smithereens by the destruction-minded giant, Wreck-It Ralph. From the boing boing sound that accompanies Felix’s every jump, to the tinny musical score, to the characters’ frozen facial expressions, the game looks, feels and sounds so authentic, viewers who came of age during the early-’80s heyday of video arcades might actually start to believe that they played a few rounds of Fix-It Felix, Jr. in between turns on the Tapper and Dig Dug machines.

Such memories would be false, of course, but Moore is tickled by the thought of the adults who bring their kids to see Wreck-It Ralph reliving their own youth through his movie. Born in 1963, he was still a kid when the first coin-operated arcade games started to pop up in restaurants and retail outlets. “I remember seeing a Pong machine and thinking ‘I’m controlling what’s on the TV!’ That was huge.” But the quarter-eater that left the biggest impact on him—and the one he still considers his all-time favorite game to this day—was Pac-Man, which took the world by storm following its introduction in 1980. “There was just something about Pac-Man, the way he looks,” Moore explains. “Once videogames started to become character-based, like with Pac-Man and Dig Dug, they grabbed my attention. There was this tabletop Pac-Man game at the pizza place near my high school and after school my friends and I would just go there, sit with our pizza and Cokes and just play. I have happy memories of that pizza place and video arcades in general and that’s what I wanted to come through in the movie.”

Moore’s beloved Pac-Man is one of many popular game characters to make a brief appearance in Wreck-It Ralph (keep your eyes peeled for additional cameos by the likes of Q*bert, the Tapper bartender, Sonic the Hedgehog and Street Fighter II’s Ken and Ryu—sadly a certain Italian plumber doesn’t stop by, perhaps because he was busy saving his princess pal from yet another kidnapping), making this, in some ways, the Who Framed Roger Rabbit of videogame-based movies. As with that Robert Zemeckis-directed classic, though, the crowd-pleasing cameos are just there for texture, supporting an original story with original characters, whose lives are far more complicated than their limited functions within their games might suggest.

After 30 years of wrecking the same building, Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is well and truly sick of being the designated bad guy, one who is regarded with suspicion and fear by Felix (Jack McBrayer) and the other dwellers that reside in the high-rise he’s required to pound away at with his oversized fists. While his villain support group teaches him that being the bad guy in his game doesn’t make him a bad guy in life, Ralph decides to take more proactive measures to change the nature of his existence, venturing from his simple platformer into a slick first-person shooter called Hero’s Duty, where he intends to prove his worth by retrieving a shiny gold medal. From there, he hops to the candy-coated racing game Sugar Rush, where he becomes reluctant friends with hyperactive wannabe racer Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), who has personal issues of her own—issues that will require Ralph to learn that the true mark of a hero is the ability to put aside your own interests and help someone else in need. What begins as a clever riff on classic videogames becomes a sweet story about friendship and learning to appreciate yourself for who you are.

Moore himself came up with that emotional hook, applying it to a story idea that he says Disney had been kicking around for about 15 years prior to his arrival at the Mouse House. “When I came to the studio to develop some of my own ideas, I heard through the development department that there was this pitch for a movie about the secret life of videogames,” he remembers. “Up to that point, no one had been able to crack it and create a story around that notion. I liked videogames and found the concept interesting, so I thought I’d give it a try and within a week I was ready to scrap the idea. I felt that the life of a videogame character is boring, because they’re locked into one job and do it over and over again every day whether they have a choice or not and that didn’t sound interesting to watch. Then the lightbulb came on in my head and I thought, ‘What if the main character in our story doesn’t like his job? What if he’s having a crisis of faith, an existential crisis about not being happy with his place in the universe? Now that’s interesting!’ So that’s basically where my idea for the story started from, taking a personal internal conflict and applying it to a person who happens to be a simple 8-bit character in a classic videogame. I also knew that the film would be able to draw on the scale and spectacle that we know videogames possess, so we’d be able to tell this very human story in these big, expansive game worlds.”

“Expansive” may not apply to the simple, one-level setting of Fix-It Felix, Jr., but the sprawling universes of Hero’s Duty and Sugar Rush are different stories. Reflecting the way gaming has evolved from its 8-bit origins, these distinctly modern-day, double digit-bit games are lushly imagined and packed with detail, from the giant weapons carried by the space-age warriors in Hero’s Duty to the candy-corn avatars that cheer the Sugar Rush racers on from the stands. “We really strived to create worlds that feel believable and have some logic to them,” Moore explains. “Because if we don’t believe in the world, we don’t believe in the characters and the movie doesn’t mean much to us; it’s just an exercise in cool animation and nice graphics. I think that’s when these animated movies really work, when they have something in them that punches our heart or there’s a profound idea in the center of them.”

The importance of strong world-building in animation is a lesson Moore learned during his formative years working on “The Simpsons,” the long-running, hugely influential Fox sitcom that he joined during its groundbreaking first season in 1989. “The town Springfield, to me, was a real place. Even to this day, I can navigate the Simpsons’ house in my memory as if it were the house I grew up in as a kid. For all of us working on it, ‘The Simpsons’ was always more than just a cartoon show. We really believed that it was a show about a family that loved one another to their core, but were also prone to outrageousness. They were dysfunctional like no other family ever seen on TV, but in their heart of hearts they loved each other. That was something I always strove for in the episodes I directed and it was reflected in the acting, the way shots were laid out and how the story progressed. When directors and animators and story artists and writers know their world as intimately as we did on ‘The Simpsons,’ I think it comes through in the art.”

Working with screenwriters Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee, Moore sought to bring the same mixture of outrageousness and deep feeling to Wreck-It Ralph, specifically in the friendship that develops between Ralph and Vanellope. Although they get off on the wrong foot, their squabbling eventually gives way to mutual trust and even admiration. Which just makes it all the more upsetting when the two have a falling out instigated by King Candy (Alan Tudyk), the seemingly benevolent, but secretly duplicitous ruler of Sugar Rush’s digital candyland. The scene where Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship spins off-track is one of Moore’s favorite moments in the movie, in spite of the fact that it may reduce the kids in the audience (as well as more than a few of the adults) to tears. “What I love about that scene and why I’m really excited for audiences to see it is that it takes us to a place where we don’t think the actors or story are going to go, but it feels right. It feels like the movie goes to another level—that these are real people, not just cartoon characters. When you’re able to achieve that, I think you’ve really struck on something special.”

To fully capture the emotion of that moment, Moore made it a priority to have Reilly and Silverman together in the recording booth, which can be a rarity in animated productions where the actors are more often recorded separately. “John is an actor who likes to work with other actors and if I was going to get the best out of him, it was important for me to create an environment where he could flourish. I found it instrumental to have the actors working together and playing off each other. Like in that one really emotional scene, John would kind of move around and pantomime what he was doing and it gave Sarah an emotion to see and react to. We were all very moved recording that scene and were amazed at how emotional the atmosphere got. That doesn’t happen a lot in animation.

“During production, I also did something else that’s not too common with other animated films: I made some time for John to get together with the animators that perform the visual performance of his character. I wanted both sides to meet each other and talk about each other’s process; it was like watching two halves of a brain converse with each other. They soaked up the information from that conversation like a sponge and a lot of it is reflected in the movie.”

What Wreck-It Ralph ultimately reflects more than anything, though, is the respect and affection that Moore has for videogames, a medium that’s still not taken entirely seriously as an art form (sometimes, it must be said, for good reason). And not just the games of his youth either, but also the busier, more complex—both narratively and gameplay-wise—titles that kids today grow up playing, like Halo and God of War. “I wanted the film to be a positive experience that really celebrated new and old games,” he says. “And in the grand scheme of things, those older games aren’t really that old. Kids do still know what arcade games like Pac-Man are.” And, after Wreck-It Ralph, chances are good they’ll want to start pumping quarters into Fix-It Felix, Jr. machines as well. We call first game.