WRECK-IT-RALPH Trailer: Transmedia Juggernaut Announcing Its Arrival

I saw the trailer for Wreck-it-Ralph over the weekend and was impressed by the concept, the product, its presumed extensions and eventual franchise. (A Disney release, Wreck-it-Ralph is a video game villain who dreams of becoming a video game. It’s a hero’s quest tale within a world peopled by characters from the gaming world in all its mad-cap variety.)

The trailer, released June 6 in conjunction with the E3 convention, heralds the release in November of 2012 of the film as well as the video-game based on the story on all Nintendo platforms. It’s a bold, and high-stakes marketing effort for a film that’s already carrying it’s own substantial ($150M) production and marketing costs. Now consider the cost of video-game development, and all the expectations for intended sequels and extensions. If it bombs, there will be collateral casualties.

In the WIR film and trailer, famous characters from the history of video games make cameo appearances. Presumably, the developers of these games and iconic characters are using Wreck-It-Ralph to test their cinematic appeal, following the lucrative example of DC and Marvel comics. Although the concept is smart and the characters– voiced by John C. Reilly, Jane Lynch, Jack McBrayer and Sarah Silverman— appealing, I hesitate to say whether Disney has chosen the right vehicle to bring off a simultaneous (rather than a serial) roll out of a new entertainment brand.

Before I discuss the more salient aspects of this transmedia and convergence “play,” let’s consider the trailer:

The youtube trailer (above) opens with a hosted introduction, featuring Reilly speaking about his new movie, his character and his cast mates, concluding with the rather-old-fashioned call to action, “I’ll see you in the movies.” Mr. Reilly, who is known more for his talent than his personal beauty, may have found in Wreck-It-Ralph an ideal and flattering digital avatar. So I don’t get why the Disney Marketing department chose to feature him in propria persona (wearing a non-descript black blazer and blue dress shirt) to drum up interest. It doesn’t help that he’s cut off in the frame just below his shoulders so that his hand gestures go unseen, albeit indicated by the movement of his shoulders. He seems inhibited and awkward; there is nothing dynamic, digital or cool about this hosted appeal.

The trailer itself begins with a shot of the neon-sign for Litwak’s Family Fun Center, then cuts to pixelated game play of Fix-it-Felix on an arcade machine. We see Ralph bested again and again by Felix (McBrayer), falling to the pavement outside the tenement he continually attempts to destroy. As the Talking Head‘s song “Once in a Lifetime” plays, we learn from copy that “for over 30 years/ he’s been doing the same job.” Then, via dialogue/v.o., Ralph makes clear that he resents his essential role in the game and feels unappreciated in his work.

In the digitally animated world of off-duty game characters, he attends a group therapy session for other video game villains who have issues with their employment. Ralph rejects their kind words and advice, and we learn, via the P.O.V. of a female gamer that he’s quit Fix-It-Felix, leaving it villainless, to pursue his dream of being a hero. The copy helpfully explains that “New Dreams” and “New Worlds” await him. He ends up in an action shooter Role Playing Game (RPG), in which Sergeant Calhoun (Lynch) dominates and where his intrusion is resented. He then meets Vanellope von Schweetz (Silverman) in the racing video game Sugar Rush. Meanwhile, Felix goes in search of his colleague (and friend?), whose unorthodox choices have elicited ominous consequences.

After the set up, the trailer de-emphasizes the action/adventure aspect of Ralph’s quest in favor of an extended scene between him and Vanellope, presumably to sell the comedy and the sensibility of the film. Further positioning the film as a character driven comedy, the copy cards explain that this is “The story of a regular guy/Just looking for a little recognition/Just looking for a little Wreck-ognition).”

Now a word about the concept. While it is commonplace for movie, comicbook and archetypal characters to populate video games, Wreck-it-Ralph is a NEW character who emerges from within the world of video games generally. The conceit of the film is that when the arcade closes, the characters who feature in the games–heroes, villains, love interests, stock, extras, bit players, etc.– are no longer at work or “on,” and are free to conduct their own lives and pursue their leisure activities, rather like the toys in Toy Story.

It’s a rich and intriguing set-up, offering enormous room for development and exploitation. Having invested countless hours in game play, gamers have already created enduring and complicated emotional relationship with repetitive, two-dimensional, pixelated roles. It’s hard to imagine a more invested and motivated audience. In Wreck-it-Ralph, these characters are shown to be (are imagined as) complicated, three-dimensional, developing figures, capable of behavior beyond the rules and constraints of the familiar gameplay. If it hasn’t been done before, it’s a concept whose time has clearly arrived.

Traditional animation blockbusters like Shrek and KungFu Panda spawn video games based on characters and in settings introduced in the film. For a more relevant analogue, however, consider Tron (1982) and Tron (2010), which both introduced video games inspired by the success of their films. Neither, however, released its video game simultaneously with the film, and in both the gaming protagonist was based on a “live-action” or “human” model, who entered the world of the game, rather than a character inspired by a few-dozen pixels and a repetitive routine of pre-programmed behaviors.

With the scene of group therapy featuring, Bowser from Super Mario Bros., Doctor Eggman from Sonic the Hedgehog, Q*bert, Coily, Slick and Ugg from Q*bert, Kano from Mortal Kombat, Chun-Li and Cammy from Street Fighter, Neff from Altered Beast and Paperboy from Paperboy, make their screen debut, as characters apart from their gaming roles. In this clever way, the trailer for Wreck-it-Ralph announces an entire new source of characters and concepts for feature filmmaking. It’s a great gag, and quality cross-promotion, but it also feels like the first salvo in a transmedia campaign to exploit these characters/story ideas across new media platforms.

Disney is out in front, here– moving from film to video game rather than than video to film, however– since the video-game imagined by the script does not yet exist. As of November, it will, on all Nintendo platforms, including Wii. I quote the press release. You’ll notice the presumption that WIR will be a “blockbuster.” It better. A lot is riding on it.

“Get ready for classic arcade video game action with a whole new modern look and feel as Activision Publishing Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Activision Blizzard Inc., (Nasdaq: ATVI) and Disney Interactive today announced a collaboration to produce and distribute a Wreck-It Ralph™ video game. As a story extension to the highly anticipated upcoming blockbuster film of the same name from Walt Disney Animation Studios, the Wreck-It Ralph video game is set to inspire a whole new generation of young gamers as a classic, arcade-style side scroller featuring Ralph – the misunderstood villain of his own arcade game who sets out to prove he can be a hero too. Debuting this fall tied to the movie release, Wreck-It Ralph will bring all the fun from the big screen right into the living room for the Wii™ system from Nintendo, and the Nintendo 3DS™ and Nintendo DS™ hand-held systems.
Source: PR Newswire (http://s.tt/1fOkj)”

Extension: Disney Interactive and Activision – for Nintendo platforms. Video games to be relased in conjunction with the November opening of the film.

Disney also released a browser-based Flash-based version of the Fix-It Felix Jr. game.[20]

Video Game to Debut in Conjunction with Feature Film’s Fall 2012 Release
MINNEAPOLIS, June 25, 2012 /PRNewswire/ —

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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