I got a 25-minute glimpse this week of "Wreck-It Ralph," Disney's wacky animated comedy that takes place inside the world of video games (November 2). Funny and inventive with enough iconic cameos to put a smile on the face of gamers, it's more "Alice in Wonderland" than "Tron."
In fact, it's clear that Disney's finally found its creative voice under John Lasseter after wandering in the woods. They've leveraged the success of "Tangled" by continuing to merge CG and hand-drawn animation into a new hybrid. (The new black and white "Paperman" short has gone even further in seamlessly blending the two techniques with a breakthrough interface.)
And just as Brad Bird shook up Pixar with "The Incredibles," Rich Moore has done the same as a newcomer to Disney from TV ("The Simpsons" and "Futurama"). Although he tried to pitch his own ideas, fellow CalArts alum Lasseter instead convinced him to helm "Ralph" as something fresh yet familiar.
The move's a mash-up of different animation styles — both cartoony and hyper real — set within three distinct video game worlds. But it's wrapped around a hulking character, Ralph (John C. Reilly), with an existential crisis. As the villain from the "Fix-It Felix Jr." 8-bit arcade game, he's tired of 30 years of repetitive programming and longs to be the hero. So Ralph decides to hop games and win a medal in the gritty first-person shooter, "Hero's Duty," only to crash-land in the Candy Land-inspired "Sugar Rush," where he's forced to team up with a wise-cracking misfit, Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), with her own self-esteem issues.
"I think ['Tangled'] produced the best human animation that's ever been done," Moore boasted. "It was CG but it felt like that classic Glen [Keane] era of [2D] animation. I inherited what was already established. The relationship that he forged with the 3D animators and the insight that he instilled was [vital]. He would sit at a Cintiq as shots played and would do 2D drawings over the animation. It was an easier fit than you might think…we all speak the same language."
So Moore encouraged not only character animators but also effects animators to continue drawing over the CG to get snappier expressions and poses, and insisted that they create new rigs to accommodate more squash-and-stretch when appropriate. Inevitably, the Disney DNA is recognizable, most notably in the "Sugar Rush" sequences (patterned after the rounded architecture of Barcelona), in which King Candy intentionally resembles Ward Kimble's Mad Hatter.
But "Ralph" is highly personal to Moore as well. After all, he knows exactly where his anti-hero is coming from. "I went through a similar thing prior to coming to the studio," he admitted. "I wondered: Is this what life's all about? Working in TV from project to project without a character arc? So there's a nice layer of that throughout the story that someone can come into another environment and have impact, personally, and on a wider scale."
The challenge was having the characters staying true to their video game roots while at the same time not being slavish to game play storytelling. In other words, it had to function like a movie by being more emotional than mechanical. Yet it wouldn't work without the edgy chemistry between Ralph and Vanellope (enhanced by Moore's insistence that Reilly and Silverman perform their voice sessions together, which is unusual for animated features).
"I remember watching 'Finding Nemo' and when Dory came on screen and how that character seemed to transcend Ellen DeGeneres' voice and the design of a fish," Moore recalled. "It became its own thing. That's the alchemy of animation. And this has a sweet heart that's wrapped in a level of spectacle."
Of course, what will ultimately determine the success of "Ralph" as a story and an Oscar contender is its emotional payoff. But in the meantime, Moore has a found a home and a legacy to build on. "Why does a special shape have to be sculpted by a bunch of technicians when the animator knows what to do with it? Give us the controls to do that. If you were in an 8-bit game, it would have staccato action so celebrate it. But have the classic Disney appeal. I think you're just seeing the natural progression of the art form."