'Wreck-It Ralph' Is a Sweet, Animated Tale About ... Urban Planning?

The visuals for Disney's hit critique real-world video games—and the real world, period.

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The best science fiction is deeply architectural, immersing the reader in a fully imagined world leagues different—or lightly tweaked—from ours. Video games, by contrast, traditionally had an out, limiting their pixelated reality by screen edge or vertical scrolling. (What happens to the left and to the right in Tetris? Who cares, you're distracting me.) But as gaming has become more sophisticated, so has the architecture of the games, pushing the avatars out into spaces with up, down, side-to-side, and even behind.

Technological leaps are often accompanied by nostalgia for simpler times. And so, as the cassette tape (two, maybe three, technologies back) reappears as a design for an iPhone case, the new Disney movie Wreck-It Ralph—$149 million domestic gross and counting—comes along to remind us how sweetly we gamed in the 1980s, and to suggest that HD isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Wreck-It Ralph (the character) is on thin ice in Litwak's Arcade in Wreck-It Ralph (the movie) as he inhabits one of the oldest games in the joint. The march of time in the arcade is correlated to the games' graphic complexity, from Pac-Man's monomaniacal maze to the chunky version of the real world of Fix-It Felix Jr. (in which Ralph unhappily plays the villain), Sugar Rush's smooth slopes and kawaii girls to Hero's Duty's HD. For the '80s avatar, entering the last is an experience so remarkable that he has to break the fourth wall and remark to the movie's viewers about fully rendered beauty of Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch, voicing Lara Croft with a blonde skater's crop).

The march of time is also reflected in the tasks the gamers must perform. Picking up dots and hitting the jackpot of the occasional cherry was the work of the equivalent of the arcade's 19th century. Today, we blast Cy-Bugs, hoping to pick up additional firepower along the way. In Sugar Rush there are no homes, no parents, just speed and sweets. The work ethic of Fix-It Felix Jr. has been left in the dust, a relic of an urban reality now focused on entertainment.

But in addition to critiquing the way games have changed, Wreck-It Ralph has a good deal to say about the real world. That's actually not that unusual for an animated film, especially considering the Pixar canon that Disney's filmmakers were so clearly influenced by (John Lasseter is now chief creative officer for both studios).

Toy Story 3, for example, portrays both daycare and the dump as versions of hell, but it went easy on the generic suburb that contained these infernos. Wreck-It Ralph, by contrast, offers fairly sophisticated commentary on how we live now via the science fiction trope of different worlds. It may sound like a stretch, but it's clear the creators of Wreck-It Ralph have been thinking about their urban history, and might side with some of today's more activist civic planners—those who envision a dynamic society where each individual can live, work, and play in an environment shaped to their needs.

Think about the urban environment Ralph lays out at first. There's certainly no mixed-use development, and very little mobility. Domestic life happens in Niceland, the sturdy brick apartment building at center screen in Fix-It Felix Jr.. Ralph is the bad guy, so his name isn't on the game console, but it is Niceland that Ralph has to wreck each quarter. Boozing happens at the wood-paneled bar in Tapper. Fighting—the only kind of work on offer at the arcade—is the 9-to-5 routine within Hero's Duty, where the Cy-Bugs rush in every time the coin drops. Recreation? That's at the Candyland world of Sugar Rush, where the racetrack is the ostensible arena, but we spend more time enjoying the sugary scenery. Landscape architecture meets confectionary here, as it has in a thousand Peppermint Forests.

The place the avatars congregate after hours is Game Central Station, where the arcade's single power strip has been transformed into a Beaux Arts train station. Characters from unplugged games panhandle at the entrances; they have nowhere else to go. The high-arched windows at either end recall Grand Central, and the line of benches down the middle resemble Union Stations in Chicago and Seattle. If only the ceiling were rendered as constellations of departed arcade stars. Avatars arrive at this transfer point by subway, with each train styled to go with the game's aesthetic. Ralph has to cram himself into the rickety, kid-size cars of Fix-It Felix's toy world. Just as he can't help but smash the penthouse apartment in his world's single apartment building, the transportation system isn't designed for him to travel. His boredom with being the bad guy is underscored by living in an environment that literally doesn't have room for him.

When Ralph finds redemption (you'll have to see the movie to find out how), it is in a home that fits, created by nudging the restrictive left-right boundaries of Fix-It Felix. Ralph shacks up next to the formerly homeless Q-bert in East Niceland, a neighborhood of neat rowhouses that resembles the streets of townhomes that are the way we build affordable housing now. It does not seem coincidental that this neighborhood is "East" of downtown, as so many real-world low-income urban areas are, and that it replaces Ralph's former home in the dump (ahem, brownfield).

Wreck-It Ralph can be seen as a parable of urban displacement. Everyone needs work they can feel proud of, and a neighborhood they feel welcome in. High-tech jobs like blasting Cy-Bugs don't mean we still don't need construction workers and automobile production lines (building your own cookie car is a sub-game on Sugar Rush). In a world where East Niceland has quality housing and room for the displaced, true love can also blossom between the bitmapped and the HD.