Lessons Filmmakers Can Learn is an ongoing series where I will derive filmmaking lessons (for better or for worse) that I learned after watching a recent film, in terms of writing, directing and editing. For our first edition, we have the much-loved Disney animation Wreck-It Ralph.
While Disney animations have recently been overshadowed by their much more respected banner Pixar, the last couple of years have seen a shift in this pattern. Thanks to Pixar churning out a mediocre sequel in the form of ‘Cars 2’ and a fun but not very memorable adventure ‘Brave’ this year, the playing field has been leveled as other animation studios are producing quality animated films throughout the year. But after watching most of the offerings this year, the one that handily is the best animated film of the year so far is Disney’s ‘Wreck-It Ralph’. It’s a love letter to the videogaming culture and manages to be a highly entertaining adventure for both adults and kids alike. And the healthy box-office returns for the film only re-inforce the fact that audiences will respond to a film that looks fresh and exciting instead of the same old drivel. But what can filmmakers learn from the film?
Note – Mild spoilers for the film follow.
Lesson #1 – Dare to explore fresh new worlds.
In an animated fantasy film (or pretty much any film), the world you set your story in could either be stale and safe or fresh and original. If you’re trying to connect with an audience by enticing them to see your film, one of the most important factors that makes up their mind is an intriguing world that the film is set in. It definitely worked with ‘300’, which had a highly stylized world that look unique and appealing and I believe that and a kick-ass trailer to be the reason why the movie broke box-office records. In a dearth of sequels that animated audiences never really asked for (Happy Feet 2, Ice Age 4), Wreck-It Ralph instantly stood out of the crowd by being set in a world unexplored in its genre before – the worlds inside the very videogames we play. It’s a deceptively simple idea that I’m surprised no Hollywood film never really explored before to this scale (‘Tron’ did, but that’s a whole different genre altogether).
The writers gave audiences an ‘in’ to this wonderful world of arcade videogames by fully fleshing out the details of it. We find out that every game exists in its own world with its own rules that reset whenever a player comes to play. We also see that there’s an airport-like lounge where all the game characters travel to their worlds when they’re needed. The writers chose three particular worlds to set their film in this movie – the simplistic retro arcade world of Wreck-It Ralph which is small in scope and outdated in graphics with simple but fun objectives, the intense and visceral world of Hero’s Duty with high definition graphics and fast-paced violent gameplay, and the sugary female-targeted world of Sugar Rush which actually has the most hidden secrets of them all. All of these worlds feel authentic in the way that they’re used and provide great contrast for the characters that inhabit them. People I’ve spoken to relate to at least one if not more than one of these gaming worlds and were equally excited to explore the ones they were not familiar of. The writer’s willingness to think outside the box and find a fresh world to set the story in made a huge difference with this film, and it’s a lesson we can all learn at the idea stage. Pay attention to your world and its rules.
Lesson #2 – Create lively and memorable characters.
One of the first things you’ll notice about the film is how well-rounded and memorable almost every single character that appears in the film is, especially the lead character of Wreck-It Ralph. He’s an arcade videogame villain for decades but has always been neglected as a part of the family and always yearned to be a hero. One day, he decides to seek out a medal that will prove that he can be a hero as well by breaking out of his own game and into other videogames. He’s a character that feels different from most animated films of the past few years, not only because he’s so unconventional but also because he’s relatable and fleshed out. Plus, he’s not just one-note and has multiple layers to him that he ends up realizing on his journey when he questions what being a hero really means.
Vanellope is our emotional core of the film and a character that I didn’t think would be nearly as important to the film as it ended up being. She’s a glitch in her own game and thus has to hide out and never gets to be a part of the world she lives in. On an emotional level, Ralph empathizes with her plight because that’s exactly what he feels. The dynamics between these two characters ends up being what the movie is really about, and it was very surprising to see this amount of character depth and backstory in a screenplay of a kids’ adventure. Even the secondary characters like Sergeant Calhoun, Felix and King Candy were highly memorable and thanks to the great writing they all receive, one can actually imagine spin-off films based on all of them. Character work is most neglected on children’s films but even though we don’t realize it, it makes the difference between a good film and a great one.
So memorable characters distinguish between a good but forgettable film or one that stays with you. It’s even more important for animated films to have memorable characters because they hold franchise potential, and I can see Wreck-It Ralph being a major franchise on its own solely because of its lively characters. Whatever your film is about, neglecting character work can take away from its merits.
Lesson #3 – Target a niche audience.
There’s a reason why Disney is seeing huge success with a completely original property like Wreck-It Ralph and why the film had so much online buzz about it months before release that no animated film ever sees. It’s because Disney decided to target and cater to an oft-neglected and very engagement-hungry audience of gamers. The film is chock-full of videogame references and revels in that culture, which instantly appealed to videogamers of the current generation. But at the same time, the retro arcade theme of the film also invited adults nostalgic about their gaming days to the cinema and every one of them ended up thoroughly enjoying the film. Sure, an animated kids film is most successful when it appeals to children and the highly colorful worlds in the film along with some excellent trailers did that job more than well, but a truly successful animated film holds equal appeal to adults and teenagers as well. That’s the reason why Pixar films are so respected, because they’ve cracked how to invite that audience as well.
But Wreck-It-Ralph is not a Pixar film, and Disney is a brand heavily associated with movies primarily targeted at the little ones. And that’s why it was important for them to target a niche audience by giving them something to latch on to and pique their interest in the film. In this case, it was the arcade nostalgia for adults and the clever videogame references for general gamers.
Lesson #4 – But use familiarity to invite a broad one.
You could make a great film for a niche audience and succeed thoroughly with it if your budget is in check (‘Primer’ is a great example), but the same cannot be said when your budget is high. ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World’, an excellent movie with a lot of cult appeal, never managed to appeal to a broader audience and alienated them with its wacky premise and visuals without giving them some familiar elements to latch onto. And that was a $60 million movie. Wreck-It Ralph costs $150 million, so it was very important for the film to appeal to a broad demographic.
But how do you do that without compromising on quality or dumbing things down? The filmmakers knew that making a film full of inside jokes and references wouldn’t lead to a successful film considering its budget, so they wrapped those elements around a familiar Disney template that kids are comfortable with. At its core, Wreck-It Ralph is a Disney movie. It’s about a character who goes out to find his place in the world and realize his destiny, which is a premise not unfamiliar to anyone who’s seen many animations. Even the most complex and ambitious of big-budget films use the element of familiarity to appeal to a bigger audience. Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’ had a very risky premise and even bolder narrative structure as it went on, but the filmmakers were smart enough to wrap all of that around what at its core is a heist film – a genre that’s familiar to audiences.
In the same vein, Disney decides to use their trustworthy Disney movie template that has proven to be successful for them in the past on this material. But yet, you won’t find anyone complaining about how the film was rehashed and stale. That’s because it was presented in such a refreshingly original and charming package that the familiar elements only worked in its favor, providing a rounded family adventure that everyone can enjoy.
Are there any more lessons that you derived about filmmaking after watching the movie? Sound off in the comments below.