Sean P. Means: ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ director jumps into video-game world

By Sean P. Means

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: November 2, 2012 01:16PM
Updated: March 6, 2013 11:31PM
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Director Rich Moore arrives at the world premiere of "Wreck-It Ralph" at El Capitan Theatre on Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

In Hollywood, they say, it’s who you know that counts.

That maxim came into play when animator/artist Rich Moore, director of the new movie “Wreck-It Ralph,” arrived at Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2008.

Moore was a veteran of Fox TV animation, living in Los Angeles directing episodes of “The Simpsons,” “The Critic” and “Futurama.” Two of his old friends are among the leading lights at Pixar Animation Studios: John Lasseter (director of “Toy Story” and “Cars”) and Andrew Stanton (director of “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E”).

“There’d always been a desire for me to work up at Pixar,” Moore said in a recent phone interview. But Pixar’s up in the Bay Area, and Moore didn’t want to uproot his family.

So when Disney merged with Pixar — and Lasseter became the boss of Disney’s animation division, based in Burbank, Calif. — Moore jumped on board.

When Lasseter asked for movie pitches, Moore served up an idea about life inside a video game.

“What if the main character was the character in the game, who has to do the same thing every day because he’s programmed to?” Moore asked in his pitch. “And, because he does not like his job, [he asks] ‘Is there more to life than my job in this game?’ ”

Lasseter liked the pitch and gave Moore the go-ahead.

At first, Moore and screenwriter Phil Johnston tried to work with a good-guy character, but that “didn’t feel like that much of a journey,” Moore said. “So Phil said, ‘What if we made it about the bad-guy character?’ ”

That’s how the character of Wreck-It Ralph came to be. Ralph would be the Donkey Kong to the game’s Mario, a hammer-swinging repairman named Fix-It Felix Jr. Ralph would wreck the building, and Felix would fix it — until Ralph decides to explore life, and try to be a hero, in another video game.

Much of Ralph’s character comes from the voice casting.

“When we knew that our main character was the bad guy, this oafish Donkey Kong kind of guy, we said, ‘Who could play that?’ ” Moore said. “Who could be grumpy and surly, but you still want to care about him?”

The first name Moore and Johnston thought of was John C. Reilly.

Then came another instance of “who you know.” Johnston had previously written “Cedar Rapids,” a dark R-rated comedy. He worked with Reilly on that film, so he had the actor’s email address and wrote him to gauge his interest.

Reilly was interested, but not without reservations. “He had never done voice-over work for feature animation,” Moore said. “He heard it was an actor working alone. He wasn’t really comfortable with that. John likes to play off of other actors.”

Moore solved the problem by taking the unusual step of having Reilly and co-star Sarah Silverman record together.

Silverman, who’s known for her dry and often profane stand-up routines, may seem out of place in a Disney cartoon. But her voice performance as Vanellope Von Schweetz, a would-be driver in a candy-themed car-racing game, is a perfect blend of sweet and sour.

Vanellope “seems very sweet on the outside, very childlike and naïve,” Moore said. “But she’s something like Bugs Bunny, like a smart-aleck kid who becomes a thorn in Ralph’s side. I said to Phil, ‘Sarah Silverman playing a sweet little candy character would be just so funny.’ It turns the typical candyland cliché on its ear.”

Another form of casting was the placement of classic video-game characters to make Ralph’s world authentic. The film includes appearances from characters from “Pac-Man,” “Street Fighter,” “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Qbert,” among others. (Even an obscure game, “Tapper,” takes on a prominent role as the video-game world’s favorite tavern.)

Moore and a producer met with several gamemakers, to get their blessing to use their characters in the movie. “We wanted to be very authentic and pay homage to the real game characters,” Moore said. “Just about all of them [agreed]. Very seldom did anyone say, ‘We don’t want them in this movie.’ ”

One video-game character you won’t find in “Wreck-It Ralph” is one of Disney’s own creations: Tron, the title hero of the 1982 movie (and a 2010 sequel) set in the game world.

“We kept looking for a place to put him,” Moore said of Tron. “We didn’t want to waste Tron. We didn’t want it to be a cheap walk-on.”

Maybe if there’s a sequel — but only if Tron knows somebody.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at movies@sltrib.com.