It was the story that artists at Walt Disney Animation Studios had been struggling to get a handle on for over 15 years. A comic action-adventure set inside of the world of video games, where the computer-generated hero longed for something more.
Two previous attempts had been made to turn this thought-to-be-promising premise into a full-length animated feature. But both of those proposed films -- High Score and Joe Jump -- ultimately weren't greenlit by Disney execs because they felt that the central character was missing something. That crucial quirk or flaw which would then allow audiences to embrace this 8-bit hero.
So how did this stalled-out video game movie wind up becoming Disney's Wreck-It Ralph, one of five films to be nominated for this year's Best Animated Feature Oscar? That film's director -- TV vet Rich Moore -- is quick to credit his longtime friend, WDAS Chief Creative Officer and Pixar Grand Poobah John Lasseter.
"John and I have known each other for years. He was a fan of my work on The Simpsons, and Futurama. Which is why -- when he asked me if I'd like to try my hand at developing a full-length animated film for Disney -- I immediately said 'Yes,'" Moore recalled during a recent interview.
Mind you, Rich initially wasn't all that sure -- given that he was the guy who helped create Steamboat Itchy -- that he'd actually be able to fit in at the Mouse House. More to the point, Moore wasn't certain that any of the story ideas that he'd come up with would ever be worthy of the studio's movie legacy. But Lasseter was quick to put this television animation veteran's mind at ease.
"Right from the start, what John told me was that I shouldn't feel pressured to create a Disney-style movie. What he wanted me to do was tell a story in my own style, from my own point of view," Rich continued. "And then -- to kind of help me along -- John mentioned this video game movie idea that the Studio had previously kicked around. Which I originally thought was a really terrible idea for a movie. I mean, video game characters have no free will. They have this computer program that tells them what they're supposed to do and when they're supposed to do it. And they then have to follow that program, doing the exact same job day-in and day-out, over and over and over again. Who would want to watch a movie about a bunch of characters doing something like that?
But as Moore thought more and more about Lasseter's video game movie suggestion, he realized that a character who was trapped in this world might actually have a pretty compelling story to tell. What if one day, a character from a popular video game suddenly decided that he wasn't going to follow his programming anymore? What if he then abandoned his game and went off in search of a new virtual realm to conquer?
"So I took my take on this video game movie to John in March of 2009 and he said 'This is really good. This is now a story worth telling,'" Rich continued. "So I then got together with Phil Johnston, Jim Reardon & Jennifer Lee. And the four of us began trying to turn this frustrated-guy-leaves-his-video-game premise into the sort of story which would then support a full-length animated feature."
There were a few false starts along the way. Take -- for example -- that three month stretch where Fix-It Felix Junior was the star of Moore's movie, rather than Wreck-It Ralph. That initially seemed to the smartest way for Rich and his story team to go. That Fix-It Felix Junior wouldn't want to go into the family business. That this video game character would eventually rebel, stand up to his father and then go off in search of a place of his own out there in the virtual world.
"But by then, we'd already begun developing the antagonist for the Fix-It Felix Junior video game. And I couldn't help by notice that the Wreck-It Ralph character, the guy who was throwing garbage down at Felix as he climbed around that apartment building trying to fix things, was a lot more interesting and entertaining than Felix himself was," Rich explained. "Which is when I turned to our story team and said 'Why don't we try building our movie around that guy instead?' "'
But even after Wreck-It Ralph had become the central character of this animated feature, Moore and his story team still managed to hit a few creative dead ends as they were mapping out their movie. Chief among these was a sequence when Ralph was to have found himself stuck in Extreme Easy Living 2, this satire on social media-style gaming that Rich describes as "The Sims meets Grand Theft Auto."
"We put an awful lot of time and effort into that Extreme Easy Living 2 sequence. But in the end, it just didn't fit the type of the story that we were trying to tell with Wreck-It Ralph," Moore admitted. "Even so, it still killed me to take something that we'd all worked so hard on and then completely pull it out of the picture. But John assured me that he'd had to do the exact same thing with the original Toy Story, cutting out characters & entire scenes. And some of that cut stuff did eventually wind up in Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3. So maybe if we're lucky enough to actually get the chance to make Wreck-It Ralph 2, Ralph and Vanellope can then take a trip to Extreme Easy Living 2. And audiences can then get to see all of the social gaming gags that we came up with."
FYI: If you just can't wait 'til Wreck-It Ralph 2 comes out in order to experience Extreme Easy Living 2, you can always purchase a digital download of this Walt Disney Animation Studios release (which became available through streaming services this past Tuesday in both HD and 3D). Or if you're prefer to wait for the Blu-Ray and DVD versions of Wreck-It Ralph, those hit store shelves on March 5. Either way, among the extra features offered with this film are several deleted scenes which show what exactly happened to Ralph when he found himself stuck in the social gaming realm.
Getting back to that Wreck-It Ralph sequel now, how likely does Rich think it is that Disney will ever actually produce a follow-up to this Academy Award-nominated film?
"All I can tell you is that I had a great time making this movie. I had an incredible team at WDAS who met every challenge that I threw their way. And I'd love to be able to work with those people again," Moore enthused. "Plus I've been traveling the world with John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman promoting the theatrical release of 'Wreck-It Ralph.' And those two had a really great time making this movie too. So John and Sarah have told me that -- if Disney ever wants to make a Wreck-It Ralph 2 -- they're in. So we three are all ready to go. At this point, all we need is someone on the executive side of things at the Studio to give us the thumbs up and we'd then all gladly get started on that sequel tomorrow."
So who knows? If Wreck-It Ralph is lucky enough to take home the gold next Sunday night, Wreck-It Ralph 2 could be greenlit as early as next Monday morning.
Which is pretty amazing. Especially when you consider that this Disney animated film (which features a pretty amazing racing sequence) took over 15 years to finally get into gear.
Jim Hill is an award-winning entertainment writer who lives in New Boston, NH. Over the past 30 years, he has interviewed hundreds of veterans of the animation and themed entertainment industry and written extensively about The Walt Disney Company.
Jim is currently working on a behind-the-scene history of the development & construction of Disneyland. For his more immediate musings on movies, TV shows, books and theme parks, please check out his blog, jimhillmedia.com.