Disney’s exciting new animated comedy, “Wreck-It Ralph,” is directed by Emmy Award winner Rich Moore from a screenplay written by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee. Ralph (John C. Reilly) is tired of playing the bad guy in an old 1980s arcade game where he’s been overshadowed for three decades by Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer), the good-guy star of their game. He takes matters into his own massive hands and embarks on a hilarious, heartfelt journey across the arcade, thinking that if he can becomes a hero in other video game worlds, he will finally get the love and respect he feels he deserves.
At the “Wreck-It Ralph” press day, Moore talked to us about what it was like to helm the fun, arcade-game-hopping adventure about a world that’s inspired by things he used to play as a kid. He told us what he loved about the characters, why it’s impossible to pick a favorite, how he dealt with the challenges of animating the jerky, 8-bit Fix-It Felix characters, and what makes Sarah Silverman’s character, Vannelope, so unique. He also discussed the overlap between Disney and Pixar sensibilities that we see in the film and revealed his favorite childhood animated movies and TV shows.
Question: What was it about this that got its hooks into you?
Rich Moore: Well, I think number one, being able to make a comedy at Disney was really appealing. Phil and I from the beginning, we said, you know what, let’s try and make this the funniest animated comedy that we can make. But then, the flip side of that also is the fact that we were able to get tremendous heart into the movie, and I think that’s the hallmark of a good comedy, that it can make you laugh but also take you to that point where you’re in love with these characters and you want to see them be happy and see their relationship get kind of broken and feel that emotion for them speaks to the heart of the film. And the fact that it’s about video games is just something that I love. That’s a part of my childhood and my whole life actually. Something I’ve enjoyed and it’s been close to me. To be able to depict this world of worlds or this universe of worlds that come from things that I used to play as a kid and continue today has been really fun. It’s really great.
Q: Is one of your hopes to bring arcades back?
Moore: They’re gone? Well, I think we still have them like Dave and Busters and Chuck E. Cheese, but not like the glory days of arcades.
Q: Those aren’t really arcades. They’re bars with card systems that don’t quite add up to the money you put on the card.
Moore: (laughs) I think someone has a resentment for Dave and Busters. Did you used to work there?
Q: The games are all racing and dancing. It’s not the Fix-It Felix type games.
Moore: Right. It’d be fun if they did come back. I know there’s one here in L.A. called The Family Arcade. I think it’s on Vermont in Koreatown that’s really fun. And over in the valley on Sepulveda, Castle Park, the miniature golf course, is still there. I grew up in Ventura nearby here. We had Golf n’ Stuff off the 101 that had a great arcade that I wasted a lot of time in, but it was worth it, I think. Did you play in arcades?
Q: Yeah, on the east coast every mall had one.
Q: Who is your favorite character and why?
Moore: Ooh, that’s hard. I love them all so much. That’s really, really hard because I’ll be honest, they all feel like they’re kind of reflections of myself or people that I know and love. Boy, as the main character, I love Ralph, and what I love about him is that he’s so simple. He’s an 8-bit character and he’s carrying this very complex dilemma in his mind. There have been times when I have felt just what do I do, this is so overwhelming, and I can identify with that so much. I love Venelope (voiced by Sarah Silverman). I see myself a lot as a kid in Venelope and my daughter in Venelope, that dogged belief in a feeling that she has inside, which has been my experience in the field of animation of just believing I can be this, that I can do this with very little evidence to back it up. So I admire her faith and vision. And Felix’s innocence to the point of gullibility, I can see a lot of myself in that too, and Calhoun, just her strength of character and forcefulness. I cannot choose one. King Candy. There. Sonic.
Q: There seems to be more overlap between Disney and Pixar sensibilities. Is that the natural evolution?
Moore: It’s interesting. Obviously yeah, I guess it is. I would say that what we call the Pixar sensibility goes back even further, that it is kind of a CalArts sensibility, because so many of the people who are creative, instrumental people at Pixar came from that school, that definitely does have a storytelling and tone sensibility to it. Obviously, like John [Lasseter] is from there, Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton, Joe Ranft, Jeff Pidgeon, Pete Docter, all these people were classmates of mine. Andrew and Pete were classmates, so I think what we know as the Pixar style is a CalArts style. So myself being at Disney at this time, I too am bringing that sensibility that’s kind of borne from those classrooms in CalArts to Disney and infusing what is the Disney style of fairy tales and classic storytelling with what I’ve been steeped in as a student at CalArts. Now how “Brave” happened, that’s a good question. How something that does seem very, very ensconced in that classic fairy tale storytelling is very interesting to me. I think that that’s something that Brenda Chapman, who was also a classmate, brought to Pixar at that time and it speaks to her early experiences with Disney and Dreamworks in that more fairy tale storytelling. But believe me, at our studios, the subject has come up a lot of times, especially when we were developing “Wreck-It Ralph,” that people would say “This seems like Pixar. This seems like they should be doing it at Pixar. Shouldn’t we be doing “Brave”? The comparisons were not lost within the people at the studio, so it’s fun to hear that you’re observing that from the outside. I can understand how a “Wreck-It Ralph” could happen at Disney. How “Brave” developed at Pixar is to me the bigger kind of mystery. But I think they did a beautiful job with it as their first journey into that kind of classic animation storytelling. I thought it was a beautiful movie. I really enjoyed it.
Q: Were the Fix-It Felix characters, with their jerky 8-bit animation even in the 3D style, easier or harder to animate?
Moore: Well, you’ll be surprised that it was harder, because remember, I’m working with animators who are trained in the classic Disney style of full character animation, of squash and stretch and path of action style personality animation. So when a new director comes in and says, “I want you to take everything you know and throw it out the window and make it limited.” There’s a thing in animation called twinning, when the figure is symmetrical, when both arms are doing the same thing, and you don’t do that in animation because it doesn’t happen that much in nature, in everyday life. And when I said to them, “I want you to twin the poses” they went [gasps]. There was just kind of a look on some of the animators’ faces. I had to tell them, “It’s all right. It’s fine. It’s going to be okay. You’ve got to trust me on this because it’s for the effect of these are supposed to be little 8-bit people.” We’re depicting them with full volumes and everything, but I wanted their actions to duplicate what we know from on the screen of those games. It took a lot of trust between myself and between the animation staff. It was kind of like being Columbus sometimes, telling them, “There’s land. Don’t worry. It’s going to work. You’re going to love it when it’s all done.” It was great to watch the medicine taking in people where they would kind of see and go, “Oh, now I get…,” because people aren’t mind readers. Just because I can imagine something, I can’t expect that they are going to know, “Oh yeah, I get it. I know what you’re talking about.” So it took a little working with that style for people to go, “Oh, okay.” And then, you can’t stop them. Now they’re doing it like crazy. “Look what I did this time.” So it was more of a challenge. It didn’t happen overnight. It was something that took some nurturing.
Q: Speaking of classic Disney, no one’s parents had to die.
Moore: No dead parents. No romantic comedy. Well, I guess Felix and Calhoun, but we had a princess, but I like to think that Venelope is the first in the Disney line of Presidents. The Disney Presidents merchandise. I just think it’s nice to be able to depict a female character in a Disney film that doesn’t end up a princess but decides no, I’m going to be president. I like the message of that. When I was pitching the idea to Sarah (Silverman) and going through the storyboards before we recorded and saying, “Here we see she’s turning into a princess,” Sarah started to get kind of waaaa? “Don’t worry, okay, we keep going and she decides she doesn’t want to be the princess. She’s going to be the president.” She said, “Ohhh, okay. Yeah. I love this character. I love this movie.” I’m really proud of that.
Q: It came pretty late that she decided to keep the glitch.
Moore: And that was something developing the story we knew, like she has to stay a glitch. The whole theme of this thing is being true to oneself and acceptance of who we are and being the best we can as that person. Yeah, we kind of held that one right to the end. I love the ending of the movie. I just love how it all wraps up at the end.
Q: What were your favorite or most influential animated movies growing up?
Moore: I would say “The Jungle Book” is the big one because that’s the first movie I ever saw as a little kid. That was huge. In looking back at it now, it’s probably the reason that I’m doing what I’m doing today. I think it’s the thing that started me on this journey. I didn’t even know how they did it or what was entailed, but seeing that movie, I wanted more of this. I like this and I like the experience of going and seeing that movie because my whole family went. I remember the drive home in the car and feeling like wow, this feels like Christmas. Everyone’s happy. My dad, my mom, my brother, my sister, my grandmother were there. We all liked the same thing. It was very unifying in that moment. I remember it as a really special moment in my life as a young person. I would see all the re-releases of the Disney movies, but I loved Looney Tune cartoons also on television. Those were really, really special to me. If they were on, everything stopped. I had to see those cartoons. There’s just something about the timing of them and the type of jokes and the pace of them that I really loved. And I loved all animation. I have to admit, I loved the worst animation. I loved really limited cartoons that I’ve gone back and looked at as an adult thinking, “Oh, I loved that. I want to see that again.” And they are horrible.
Q: Like Saturday morning cartoons?
Moore: Saturday, oh, I used to get a TV guide in the new season come September and mark off like, “Okay, I’m going to watch ‘Inch High Private Eye,’ I’m going to watch ‘Hong Kong Fooey,’ ‘The New Adventures of the Addams Family,’” and sit there and go, “Okay, gotta change the channel. What’s it going to be, ‘Krofft Super Show’? No, no, no, I’m going to watch this one.” Religiously. I mean, fanatic. I’ve gone back and looked at some of them and they aren’t as great as I remember them, but to me they were really, really special, and it felt like something that was made for me as an audience and that spoke my language. That doesn’t say a lot of good about me.
Q: With DVD I’ve noticed how clunky the “G.I. Joe” and “Transformers” shows were.
Moore: Yeah, but I think that you just invest in them and you fill in a lot of the gaps or a lot of the flaws with your own imagination, so I love those. I love the old Hannah Barbara like “Flintstones” and “Jetsons.” I loved the Jay Ward cartoons. I even loved those weird old “Popeye,” the Paramount “Popeyes,” those color ones, the King Syndicate “Popeyes.”
Q: Did any of that DNA slip into “Wreck-It Ralph”?
Moore: “Popeye”? A little bit. The Jay Ward, yes. I think a lot of that DNA slipped into “The Simpsons,” I think. I loved not just “Rocky and Bullwinkle” but they did another one that was “Hoppity Hooper” that was really, really good. I loved that one. I like the “Fractured Fairy Tales.” Those were a real, real favorite of mine. “Superchicken” was funny.
Q: Was it full circle to record in the building where they recorded “The Jungle Book”?
Moore: Well, I’m still trying to kind of wrap my head around it, so yeah, it was because they would have pictures of Phil Harris on the wall with Sebastian Cabot recording in there and it’s like wow, this is where they recorded “The Bear Necessities” and all those songs that I would listen to on a record over and over again trying to relive that experience. So it’s an interesting journey.
Q: By Disney standards it’s not the most lavishly animated but the fundamentals are there.
Moore: Oh yeah, no, there is something about it. It was absolute — and I’ve gone back and watched it a few times and it works, but it is not lavish. It is economical in all ways, but there is something. Just the story is great, the situations and the characters. It was a favorite, and “Dumbo,” too.