When we Baby Boomers were kids, our toys had lives of their own to us. Now that our children are young, it’s their video game characters that seem real to them. So, having once cherished my Davy Crockett coonskin cap and toy rifle, it was easy for me to see poetry in Toy Story’s Woody, a child’s inanimate cowboy doll by day, and a fretting, insecure, full-blooded character, when no one was looking at night.
My 10-year-old son Jack never had a doll like Woody to play with, but he did grow up with video games and movie characters, including Mario and Luigi. So naturally, Disney, which teamed with Pixar to bring us Toy Story, has jumped into the breach with a similarly themed movie for the Millennials. The new film, Wreck-It Ralph is also about the secret lives of children’s play-things once humans are out of the way. And the same John Lasseter who skyrocketed to prominence as Toy Story’s writer-director is overseeing Ralph as executive producer.
I wondered how Jack would compare the two films and which would have more emotional pull for both us. So we’re having them square off to find out. In one corner: Woody and his one-time rival, Buzz Lightyear, together as tag-team partners. In the other corner: Wreck-It Ralph and his own nemesis/partner, Fix-It Felix. May the best inanimate object win!
Wreck-It Ralph starts out like gangbusters, both visually and narratively. Ralph, voiced terrifically by John C. Reilly, is a Bad Guy in an arcade video game called Fix-It Felix, Jr. He is tired of always destroying things so his game’s co-star, Felix, can fix them and win a medal for doing so. He’s even more tired of being the one everyone hates. He figures if he does something heroic to win a medal himself, he’ll be better appreciated by his fellow arcade game worker/characters.
What follows is a brilliant bonanza of video figures leaving their games after hours to train it over to Game Central for a little R&R. And it’s here that Ralph comes up with his idea to enter another game, win a medal, and return to his own game a hero. Yeah, right, Ralph. You’ve obviously lived in a video game too long and haven’t seen enough movies to know it never works out that way.
For a good chunk of what follows, Ralph is on a journey of self-discovery – which includes attending Bad-Anon meetings (a wonderful riff on Al-Anon, for those not familiar with AA and it’s tributaries). As he interacts with the hero Felix (Jack McBrayer from 30 Rock), sage King Candy, Colonel Calhoun (wonderfully voiced by Jane Lynch), and Vaneloppe, voiced by the show-stealing Sarah Silverman, Ralph learns what it means to be yourself, to honor your own game, and to triumph over lies, villains and misconceptions about your value.
Without giving anything away, the so-called bad guy wins, and everyone lives happily ever after, all playing their own games at the end… at least until the inevitable sequels take over.
In its simplest form, Toy Story is about a talking cowboy doll, Woody (voiced to perfection by Tom Hanks), who fears being replaced by a new astronaut toy, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen, who is also wonderful). Woody’s thoughtless actions, ignited by his jealousy and insecurity, get Buzz trapped by Sid, the weird, crazy kid next door, who primes him for extinction via rocket explosion.
Woody’s toy pals think he did this purposely, which he didn’t, of course. And the rest of the movie centers around Woody trying to rescue Buzz and do the right thing, along the way becoming best friends with his rival and regaining the trust of his fellow toys.
In addition to re-energizing kids’ movies with its revolutionary (at the time) computer animation, the film was nominated for three Academy Awards – two for Randy Newman’s music, including the hit song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” and one for best original screenplay, making it the first animated film to be nominated for that award.
My son Jack didn’t remember seeing Toy Story, so we watched it again. He laughed at all the appropriate times, and sat mesmerized, barely moved during the film’s 90 minutes. He understood the themes of jealousy, fear of being replaced, and the importance of doing the right thing. Jack never had a favorite toy during his formative years, so, though he loved Woody – as did I – and laughed at Buzz, his emotional pull was for the characters and not for any memories they might have evoked in someone older.
Toy Story was technically a revelation in its day, but Ralph also pushes the animation limit by creating three distinct video game worlds, all of them brilliantly. The characters, while not as endearing as Woody and Buzz, were still wonderful to watch and follow, though the themes explored were not quite as universal or resounding. Nevertheless, we both felt that even though Tom Hanks and Tim Allen were great in Toy Story, they were actually slightly outdone by John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman in Wreck-It Ralph. Even if their characters didn’t quite measure up, their fresh, hilarious performances more than made up for it.
There were also, as Jack pointed out, more, chases, action and jokes than in Toy Story. Actually, there were plenty of jokes in Toy Story, too, but Jack was too young to get most of them. The opposite was true of Wreck-It Ralph. Jack got more of the jokes than I did, since he’s grown up with video games, arcades and technology changing every 20 minutes.
While there was only one spectacular chase and only one semi-villain in Toy Story, in Ralph there were plenty of both. These were more appreciated by Jack than myself. I could have done with more of the Bad-Anon elements and less of the horrendous Cyber Bugs. The wit in both films, I must say, was formative and consistent enough for adults to enjoy.
Ralph’s underlying motif was reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz — that ultimately, you can find all you need in your own family and your own backyard. No need to venture too far from your world; just appreciate what your role is in it. While Toy Story deals more with the issues every kid feels, there is also a similar underlying motif that your own backyard may just be enough. Unless, of course, a psychotic neighborhood kid happens to be playing there too.
This was a tough one. Both films push the envelope of animation and create unforgettable characters. In Jack’s view, Wreck-It Ralph eked out the win because of the action and jokes, all else being equal. I enjoyed it as well, though all the frenetic energy became kind of tiresome after a while, and I felt it could have been 15 minutes shorter. Oddly enough, though, I found the final chase in Toy Story elicited the same reaction out of me, even though it, and the movie, were much shorter. So, while I was emotionally hooked by Woody and Toy Story, I’ll go with Jack on this one. The imagination and art of the Challenger overcame whatever the film lacked in the way of emotional pull for me. And the terrific performances by Silverman and Reilly will cement our winner, Wreck-It Ralph, as a modern classic in computer animation.