The idea of an animated movie set in the world of videogames had been floating around the Walt Disney Co., for more than a decade: Imagine Pac Man, Mario and Sonic together in one movie! But despite the appeal of the premise, no one had been able to come up with a story that could incorporate all these disparate characters and still stand on its own.
Then filmmaker John Lasseter ( Toy Story), the former Pixar chief whose job responsibilities had grown to include overseeing all of Walt Disney Animation Studios, drafted Rich Moore. A veteran director of several long-running TV series ( Futurama, The Critic and The Simpsons, including that show’s classic episode Marge vs. the Monorail), Moore was asked to look over the project and see if he could crack its narrative spine.
“The earliest nugget of an idea we had was ‘What do video game characters do when they’re not being played?’” says Moore, who wound up directing Wreck-It-Ralph. “Are they like us? What are their lives like? John [Lasseter] did such a good job of exploring that same kind of question in Toy Story. . . . I thought it would be fun to see the same thing for video games, because each one is its own different world.”
The most collaborative of all film genres, animated movies are often the result of tons of ideas thrown out by writers and animators during brainstorming sessions. Once the essential premise was established, a lot of different possibilities were considered until everyone fell in love with the same particular story.
“We decided that in this universe where everyone is programmed to do the same job over and over again, there’s this one guy who has grown unhappy with his job, because he’s the bad guy in his game, and he gets no love,” Moore says. “He’s been doing it for such a long time — wrecking buildings and people’s property — that he’s starting to believe he’s a bad person. He’s lost his passion for what he does. And he hasn’t given the other people in the game any reason to believe he’s not really a bad guy.”
Phil Johnston, who wrote the final script with Jennifer Lee, says there were “maybe nine million drafts of the screenplay that went down a lot of different roads and experimented with crazy ideas. But even from our first draft, you can recognize all of the characters and the basic story of the finished film. It’s about a selfish guy learning to become selfless, a guy who has a lot to offer but doesn’t really love himself, and then ends up becoming a father figure to this little girl in another video game.”
But that plotline, effective as it is, has been used in countless Disney films before. What the filmmakers needed to make Wreck-It-Ralph stand out — to fulfill the promise of a movie set in a videogame universe — was a concept that would believably tie Frogger to Burgertime to Q*Bert to Street Fighter. The solution: a huge Game Central Station, designed to look like Manhattan’s Grand Central Station, which allows the pixel heroes to exit their arcade consoles via AC/DC cords and move about freely and interact in a secret world unknown to humans.
“That’s what John Lasseter is so good at doing: Creating worlds you didn’t know existed,” says Clark Spencer, who produced Wreck-It-Ralph. “It’s like when the toys come to life after you leave the room in Toy Story, or the underwater world of the fish in Finding Nemo. That’s the same thing here. You never imagined after the arcade closes that these characters would have real problems, and that they were only performing for you when you were playing the games. Once the arcade closes at night, they come to life.”
One of the hardest tasks in making Wreck-It-Ralph was securing the screen rights to characters that are owned by a number of companies, many of them based in Japan. That task fell to Spencer, who decided to wait until there was a completed draft of a screenplay before approaching Nintendo, Capcom, Sega and other video game giants to see if they’d be willing to lend them the biggest stars in their stable.
“ Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Toy Story opened the door for us, because those movies blazed a trail for having characters from different universes appearing in the same movie,” Spencer says. “We told everyone that they would be part of the journey of the making of the movie, that they would get approval of final animations, that they would read script pages and that they would be kept informed of any changes. I think that made the companies felt that they weren’t just signing away the rights to their characters. They were actually going to be integrated into the creative process and have their characters represented the way they wanted. It made the process more difficult, because we constantly had to send animation to Japan, and it would come back with notes and suggestion we had to incorporate. But if we hadn’t done that, those companies would have probably said no.”
The finished film proves the effort was worthwhile. From the lo-res graphics of early coin-operated games to the high-definition sheen of modern first-person-shooters, Wreck-It-Ralph promises to delight anyone who ever played a video game, regardless of age.
“I’m 46, so I guess we were like the test generation for a lot of these games,” says actor John C. Reilly, who provides the voice of Ralph. “I can still remember the first time Space Invaders showed up at the bowling alley where I hung out. It felt like a spaceship had landed there. The whole idea of manipulating figures on a video screen was something that was completely new. All my expendable income went into playing those games, and a lot of my lunch money, too. There was something about those early games, the simplicity of the visual design, that allowed you to imagine what was going on. A lot of the video games today are so sophisticated, they do that work for you. But Wreck-It-Ralph has them all covered, which is why I think the movie is going to connect with a lot of different generations of moviegoers.”