Monday, October 29, 2012

Can "Wreck-It Ralph" Convince the Old Voters that Video Games are Cool?

Update: A review for the film has been posted here.

With The Avengers blowing up at the box office, I think it finally time that we admit that nerd culture has become the norm. For the most part this is fact, though at the Oscars, we haven't seen too much traction for comic book or video game property films outside of technical fields. With Friday's release of Disney's Wreck-It Ralph, we see what could possibly be the first advancement in incorporating nerd culture to the awards circuit. In a year when we have two animated features about death (ParaNorman, Frankenweenie), it is a relief to see something different. However, can Wreck-It Ralph do one step better and beat the competition?

There is no doubt that Wreck-It Ralph will do gangbusters at the box office this weekend. The previous CGI film from Disney, Bolt earned over $300 million worldwide. They just have that kind of track record, if only because the average theater goer cannot tell the difference between Disney and Pixar, who both work frequently together. Both use CGI, which makes it harder to tell a part, though it is distinguishable tonally.

Pixar films tend to be more moral driven and obtuse in presentation. Their 2012 film Brave is a great example of this, as it introduces a female protagonist who uses archery and has some interesting mother issues. With plenty of broad Scottish humor, it may be the closest that the two companies come to overlapping, but there is more of a definitive quality to Pixar that transcends time. Disney, however, often feels reliant on more modern references and current situations. For example: Bolt was about a dog who worked in film, which already gains it a pass to make as many behind the scenes of movies jokes that it wants.

One important difference between the two is that Pixar has had a better track record than Disney. With few exceptions, Pixar has been the kingpin of the Best Animated Feature category, winning six out of the ten years that the category has been active. Disney has won none. It may be too early to determine if either Wreck-It Ralph or Brave will take the lead, but it looks like the latter is at least a front runner despite the middling reviews and the famous nixing of a Cars 2 nomination last year.

However, what makes Wreck-It Ralph so special? It is Disney, who has become a powerhouse in the animated categories. In fact, along with Dreamworks Animation, the competition has become almost evenhanded. There is little doubt that a Disney movie can at very least get nominated. This has been the case with 2009's The Princess and the Frog and 2008's Bolt, which most resembles Wreck-It Ralph in style of animation. With competition like Frankenweenie and ParaNorman, there is little that Wreck-It Ralph has to worry about.

The next question for the film is if it can transcend the culture and get higher credibility. The Academy is famously full of older voters, who are most likely not inclined to the video gaming culture present in the story. From the trailer alone, there are references to Sonic, Q*Bert, and old 8-bit video gaming styles. These are all radical ideas for a movie that is considering Oscar nominations. Can the voters be able to look past the flashy visuals and hidden references and see the story for what it is? Not unless their grandson turned them onto Halo and Mario Bros.

That tends to be the question when presenting the topic of nerd humor. Last year's winner Rango is probably an example of nerd humor. However, where Wreck-It Ralph is channeling more modern subject matter, Rango dealt with western themes, including homages to Sergio Leone and Chinatown. In a way, the movie played to the voters who have already given numerous awards to those type of films. Modern video game films have yet to develop a definitive style and haven't quite reached the acceptable level of cinematic execution of westerns, which makes it harder to gauge. 

If the film gets nominated, it will as a Disney film. However, with five available slots and some mediocre competition, it is possible that Wreck-It Ralph can sneak in. If we go based on Oscars statistics website Gold Derby, we see the movie positioned at #4 with a statistics of winning to be 15:2. The front runner in this category is Brave at 21:10. It somehow would need to impress voters in a way to beat not only Pixar, but Rise of the Guardians (5:1) and Frankenweenie (27:10). This will be tricky because these films all deal with more familiar themes and are already that much closer to being accepted.

With this established, it looks doubtful that the film will play big in any other category. With music by Henry Jackman and featuring mixes of dubstep artist Skrillex, the music doesn't quite scream Best Original Score. In fact, Gold Derby doesn't list it in the Top 31 options. It does have an original song by Owl City called "When Can I See You Again." However, the odds listed are at 100:1, which places it 17th in the category with a lot of work needed to climb into the top positions and fight songs for heavyweights from Les Miserables and Skyfall

The movie has a lot of work to do to gain some respect. However, the odds for it are looking fairer than my personal favorite, ParaNorman, which is below it at 9:1 odds. It may get the cut, but when it comes down to it, the film's biggest enemy may be the subject matter. Even if Wreck-It Ralph features the most heartfelt story of the year, it will still be "that gamer movie." It may advance video game stories to a new respectable level, but it will not stand a chance with old voters who probably never owned a Nintendo system. 

This is an odd thing to consider in a world that is currently being pushed further into technology. However, Wreck-It Ralph is already winning some marketing points with this online game. It currently holds 83% on Rotten Tomatoes (with scores to change as more reviews come in) and from reviews like Eric Kohn of Indiewire that state: 

"Beneath the pixelated gags, the stakes are relatively familiar. However, much of the humor in Wreck-It Ralph riffs on the nostalgia associated with real games."
With Kohn's words lies the real hurdle. We are not dealing with Scottish folklore or feminism in Brave, blatant Frankenstein references in Frankenweenie, or even holiday icons in Rise of the Guardian. We're dealing with video game characters, who we may know, but seem to be the only driving force in this film. As Rango has proven, nostalgia will go far during awards season, but not enough to convince old people that video games are cool. If this film gets nominated, it will because it is Disney, who has a long standing trust with the Academy. However, if it does, it just means we are one step closer to a video game-inspired Best Picture winner. It may sound stupid, but it could happen.

Is it possible that Wreck-It Ralph will be the surprise hit at the Oscars? With a safe bet of a nomination, can it go above and beyond by pushing nerd culture more into acceptance? Will this see the rise of other films of this subject matter? Does the similarity in tones for Frankenweenie and ParaNorman play in the movie's favor?

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