Wrecking the magic of kids’ movies

Wreck-It Ralph is so busy providing nostalgia for greying gamers, it forgets to enthrall children.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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Kids’ movies enjoy an unmatched longevity and adoration among the movie-going audience.

A cursory glance over the highest-grossing films of all time show that the top end is chock-full of PG-friendly favourites: when adjusted for inflation, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial ranks number three, while Disney favourites litter the top 20.

Sure, the cinema has always been that most cheap and cheery of destinations for a weekend family outing and, in a tight spot, a glorified crèche in which to dump your sprogs while you crack on with your retail therapy; but the lasting commercial clout of kids’ movies isn’t so easily explained away.

Whenever I’ve found myself in a discussion about favourite films, I’ve noted even the most arch aficionado will admit, when pressed, that their top prize goes to Toy Story not Tokyo Story, 101 Dalmatians rather than 120 Days of Sodom. Whether or not I simply belong to a particularly uncultured or emotionally stunted social circle, I leave up to you to decide. But there’s something to be said about how much we can’t help but return to the films of our childhood. So much so that it outstrips mere nostalgia. This is a point that a lot of recent kids’ outings have missed.

In 2011, JJ Abrams tried to recapture and repackage the spirit of the Spielbergian classics for a new generation in his ET rip-off, Super 8. While its constant self-aware nods and winks may have gotten the children of the Eighties a little misty-eyed, it failed to tell its own story and thus cast its own spell over the kids of today. Meanwhile, a myriad of old-favourite rehashes have similarly sailed on to our screens and right over the younger audience’s heads.

Wreck-It Ralph, a new (notably non-Pixar produced) CG animation from Disney, falls into the same trap. This time around, rather than piggy-backing off a beloved piece of celluloid, it plunders the history of gaming. Ralph (voiced by John C Reilly’s endearing fat-guy brogue) is the long-serving baddie in a video-arcade game, who longs for the adulation his nemesis/co-worker, Fix-It Felix, enjoys. He decides to foray into another game for his chance to be the hero, a plan he unveils in a support group full of such seasoned pixellated malcontents as mohawked bruiser Zangief, from classic Capcom beat-em-up Street Fighter, and one of those pesky, Pacman-thwarting ghosts.

Again, awash with knowing references, Wreck-It Ralph has been lapped up by many of the mums and dads who, most probably, were the ones dragging their kids to see it. In a particularly effusive piece in The Times Saturday review, Jonathan Ross declared it a natural successor to the Toy Story franchise, a heart-warming animation for all ages. But as his piece wandered into a reverie about Ross’ courtship with his wife – screenwriter and kindred geek spirit Jane Goldman – spent in video arcades, Ross underlined the movie’s key failing.

While the aforementioned Pixar trilogy taps into something universal – the pains of growing up and leaving your toys behind – Wreck-It Ralph only plays to the greying gamer gallery. That’s not to say it’s a bad film, it’s perfectly enjoyable fluff rendered in buoyant animation, but there’s nothing about it that will truly emboss it in the hearts and minds of kids, or for that matter adults, for whom I’m sure the novelty will wear off upon a second viewing.

More than just reminding us of our bygone youth, the best children’s movies are the ones that deal with something essential and heartfelt, and do so in a uniquely impactful way. Simba confronting Mufasa’s corpse in 1999 Disney classic The Lion King, nudging him with his yet un-maned head while saying ‘Dad, wake up’, has an emotional eloquence all of its own. Another moment that springs to mind is when Elliott, the tousled pre-teen protagonist of ET, tries to deter his wrinkly alien friend from leaving: ‘You could be happy here, I could take care of you. I wouldn’t let anybody hurt you. We could grow up together, E.T.’ *Sob*

The strokes are broad, yes. But when channelled through a child’s mind, moments of loss or forlornness have an amplified, albeit schmaltzy, intensity – something unmitigated and raw. Watching Ralph learn to love himself, in tandem with irritating fellow misfit Vanellope von Schweetz (a ‘glitch’ not allowed to participate in her respective racing game), doesn’t have any of that same poignancy.

While I Wish, the latest offering from Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda, is more a film about kids than a kids movie, it’s delicate, childlike treatment of grown-up issues should have Ralph taking notes. This independent gem tells the story of two brothers living miles apart after their parents split; the stern Goichi (Koki Maeda) moves to Kagoshima with their pragmatic mother, and the fun-loving Ryu (Oshiro Maeda) has stayed with their rakish would-be musician father in Osaka. Hearing that a wish is granted to anyone who sees two bullet trains pass, Goichi and Ryu, along with a gaggle of friends, go to the fabled spot, hoping to magic their parents back together. The lilting, beautifully shot, yet tough-edged story sees the boys come to terms with the breakdown of their parents’ marriage, meanwhile imbuing a cluster of interweaving sub-plots with the same youthful innocence and emotional essentialness.

I don’t envy the parent who tries to suggest seeing this subtitle-laden drama in place of Wreck-It Ralph, but if you manage to convince the little ones it may well stay with them, and you, much longer than just another colourful nostalgia trip.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Wreck It Ralph here:

See the trailer for I Wish here:

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