How much do you love Rich Moore? As one of the key directing circle on the early seasons of The Simpsons, the Californian animator was behind such classic episodes as “Flaming Moe’s” and “Marge vs. the Monorail,” and would later go on to helm some of the best of Futurama, too (you can thank him for “Roswell That Ends Well,” one of that show’s absolute highlights.)
This year he’s made his feature directing debut with Disney’s video-game adventure riff Wreck-It Ralph, which arrives in Australian cinemas this week on the back of a hit run with both audiences and critics in the US.
John C. Reilly voices Ralph, an 8-bit oaf who — yearning to break from the drudgery of being the bad guy and become a hero — escapes his vintage arcade game and sets out on a cross-platform quest through a first-person sci-fi shooter and the unlikely world of a Mario Kart-style candyland. Bursting with dynamic visual humour, a cavalcade of famous gaming character cameos, and a serving of old-fashioned Disney heart, Ralph marks an impressive big-screen debut for Moore. But you’d expect nothing less from the man, of course.
We had a chance to sit down and chat with Moore in Los Angeles recently, where he talked about developing the movie with Disney, his love of gaming and layered humour, and why he thought Reilly was perfect for the role.
How did Wreck-It Ralph develop at Disney? When did you become involved?
Rich Moore: I started [at Disney] in 2008 and was invited to develop three different presentations for [animation head] John Lasseter. He likes to hear three ideas at a time. As I was putting those ideas together, I became aware that at the studio they had this notion — for many, many years — of a story about video game characters floating around. It had existed as two different incarnations: one was called High Score, back in the ’90s, and that didn’t get any traction and ended up on the shelf; then another director dusted it off and it became Joe Jump — that was the name of the project, and that also kind of hit a dead end. So without looking at the material the other directors had come up with, I just kinda took the notion of “Well, what is it like for the life of video game characters behind the scenes when the games aren’t being played?” Because I thought, “Well I like video games [laughs], I’ve played ’em for a long time and I think that world, of the different genres, could be an amazing backdrop to set a story within.” The opportunity for visuals and spectacle, and just the scope of a big movie, would be great.
What would the story be like? After about a week I kind of hit a dead end because I thought, “This is a horrible idea [laughs], because, you know, video game characters have their programs and you know they do the same job day-in and day-out; they have no free will, they have no choice over what they do. Their lot is kinda cast. Who would wanna watch a movie about that?” And then I kind of had a breakthrough and thought, “Well that’s a fantastic problem for a main character to have if he did not like his place in this world.” It’s a great conflict. So I presented that idea to John Lasseter.
At one stage in the concept art Ralph looked like a giant bear. How did the character’s design evolve to his final look in the film?
RM: Well, I think a huge part of our process is leaving no stone unturned as we design or characters and our worlds. We wanted to make sure we had the right design for Ralph, and in the beginning he was almost kind of like a big Sasquatch kind of thing, like a bear or an animal, and [Ralph’s 8-bit hero nemesis] Felix was this little human being. As we started to develop the relationship he has with [Sugar Rush racer] Vanellope, he becomes kind of like an older, big brother to her. So they felt like siblings. As that story relationship began to develop, you look at the design as a bear and you think, “Can you really tell that story where Ralph is a bear? He feels more like a toy.” So slowly he started to become more human. It’s a long process and a lot of exploration. If it happens overnight then we’re doing something wrong. [Laughs] The best stuff comes from honing and honing.
How influential was something like Donkey Kong in evoking Ralph’s pathos?
RM: Definitely that crossed my mind a lot, because I always felt sorry for Donkey Kong, you know. I always thought that Mario was kind of the bad guy — because if you knew about the game there was supposed to be a back story where Mario was teasing the ape and the ape stole his girlfriend and this was kind of karma for Mario, you know? [Laughs] “Well, you shouldn’t have teased the ape!” [Laughs] So it was important to me that some of that pathos, that sympathy for the bad guy, came across in Ralph and Felix. And that’s why we have it that Ralph is kind of pushed off his land by a bulldozer, you know, because I think that gives you an immediate sympathy for him, and connection to him. He’s a victim of circumstance; he’s kind of big and loud and aggressive, so the people in his world go, “He’s bad.” He’s labeled immediately as a bad person.
What drew you to cast John C. Reilly as the voice of Ralph?
RM: Oh, well once we realised who the main character was going to be — and we knew it was going to be this big kind of oafish, loud, you know, simple guy — the writer, Phil Johnston, and I were like, “Well who can play that? And play it with some humanity, you know, where you care about him, and it’s not just a kind of a joke.” We immediately thought of John. I’m a huge fan of John’s, because I think he’s hysterically funny, but he can also perform drama very well — while all the while reminding you that there’s a human being underneath the skin. There’s just something about his performances; there’s deep, deep humanity to what he does, and I just think he does it naturally.
Did Ralph’s look change at all, once you’d cast John?
RM: I think that once he was cast that it would be impossible for our artists to not look at the source and implement that, because our people here are sponges. I would say that, yeah, once we knew it was John, his influences started to come through. And I liked that about the character; that you can kind of feel him under there. It’s kind of the way Dory in Finding Nemo had some characteristics of Ellen DeGeneres, even though it’s a fish, you know — there’s something about the look of it and the voice. It transcends. I don’t think it’s a caricature of John; it’s a transcended character that has elements of what makes him great and a visual look that’s kind of it’s own thing.
How did you decide what gaming genres were going to be in the film’s world?
RM: We wanted to represent the prominent genres of games that people would immediately recognise. So we went with old school, which was Fix-It Felix, Jr. — that’s where Ralph is from. We wanted him to be from the simplest type of game. And then we chose Hero’s Duty, because that’s one of the first places he goes in his quest. I look at the history of video games and it’s Fix-It in the ’80s, and we wanted him to go into a game that was contemporary. Then I’m always looking to change up the dynamic of what you see on screen, so I felt like going to something sweeter [Sugar Rush], or kid friendly, would be fun after this intense, military sci-fi world — and I feel like people kind of have a deep connection to that Mario Kart world, those racing-type games for kids. But they still have a lot of treachery to them, I think. I wanted to present something that looks sweet on the outside, but when you get in, it’s like, this is a real race. We wanted to get the camera down there. If you were to be in the middle of Mario Kart, it would be very dangerous. [Laughs]
So you’re a gamer from way back?
RM: I grew up with them. I spent a good bulk of my teenage years in arcades with video games back home, in Oxnard, California. It seemed like when I was a teenager there was a video game everywhere: they were in 7-Elevens, movie theatres, pizza shops; they were everywhere. And this was just before home gaming was about to take off. So to me they were culturally a big part of my youth growing up. I have a nostalgic feeling, especially for that era of gaming.
There are several levels of in-jokes in the film. Is that something you carried over from your days on Futurama and The Simpsons?
RM: Very much. I love that multi-layered kind of humour. I like giving the audience a lot of stuff to look at, and rewards for repeated viewings and paying attention. I’ve loved that all my life, you know — in Warner Bros’ cartoons, when you would catch these little sight gags in the background. And I loved Star Wars growing up. There was just so much on the screen and you could sit and watch it again and look at the people in the background and go, “Oh look, there’s a cool alien in the background that I didn’t notice before in the cantina.” To me, before I ever worked on Simpsons and Futurama, that’s always been something I loved. Like, I loved the movie Airplane! [aka Flying High!] when I was a kid, ’cause there were so many absurd things you could just pick out in the background. To me that’s just another great layer of comedy to give the audience. It wouldn’t be complete without a lot of that stuff. [Laughs]
Wreck-It Ralph opens in cinemas everywhere on December 26.