'Wreck-It Ralph's' Big Existential Crisis, and How Disney Gobbled Up Pac-Man (Q&A)
Director Rich Moore discusses Disney's comeback and cooperating with video game companies. Nintendo, he says, was "very vocal about how tall Bowser is and how Bowser would hold a Styrofoam cup of coffee."
Rich Moore never quite aimed to work at Disney, and at first glance, the body of work he'd put together over two decades in the animation business -- including stewardship of The Simpsons, Futurama and The Critic -- certainly wouldn't seem to align with the studio of Cinderella, Snow White and The Lion King. Yet with the studio stuck in a rut, it turned to Pixar's John Lasseter to try to turn it around, and so began the adventure that would become Wreck-It Ralph.
Featuring John C. Reilly as the voice of a 1980's arcade-game bad-guy who dresses like a gigantic Super Mario but operates in the destructive manner of Donkey Kong, it packs plenty of iconic video game characters, both classic and contemporary, into an adventure across gaming screens, electrical sockets and digital kingdoms. Wreck-It Ralph is tired of being the bad guy in his game -- his rival is heroic cherub-mechanic Fix-it Felix, voiced by Jack McBrayer -- and after getting fed up with a support group for baddies, he sets off to find his own game in which he can be the hero.
The combination of modern pop-culture and Disney heart has made for a clear success: Wreck-It Ralph has earned $376 million worldwide, just took home five Annie Awards and is nominated for an Oscar for best animated film.
Moore spoke with The Hollywood Reporter on Monday about making the jump to Disney and the rise of Wreck-It Ralph. The conversation has been slightly edited and condensed.
The Hollywood Reporter: You came to Disney from a career in shows like The Simpsons and Futurama, which are less Disney-ish, so to speak. Disney, I guess, has a more family-friendly tone, so was that an adjustment to make?
Rich Moore: You would think, well, did they say, "Okay, I know you come from Simpsons and Futurama, but we don’t do that here." It was pretty much the exact opposite. I came in from an invitation from John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton, and on my first day at the studio I saw John and we gave each other a big hug and he took me aside and he said to me, "Look, I’m so glad you’re here. You’re just what we need right now. And you have to promise me that you do not try to develop and direct a quote-unquote Disney movie. I don’t want you double-guessing yourself or being untrue to who you are as a filmmaker. I want you here for you and your point of view and your sense of humor and your sensibility. Not you trying to fit into the box of what you think a Disney movie is."
THR: One of the things that interested me in Wreck-It Ralph is that there were so many characters that weren’t Disney property. Was it a risk to do all those characters that aren’t Disney-owned?
Moore: It was definitely one of those things, again, if I thought about it too much I probably would’ve said, "Let's not try to do this. I don’t know if we’ll be able to get all of these guys. What are we thinking?" But I would think of Roger Rabbit. That movie came out right when I graduated from college, and I’m getting into animation and I thought it was so cool seeing all those different characters that I grew up with and that I knew from old cartoons. It just seemed like that was such a cool movie, and I would use that as a comparison to Wreck-It Ralph, to have that kind of feeling to it with all the video game characters. To me, it only really seemed worth it if we could do it with real characters...
We had a whole year of working on the story before we even reached out to the different video game companies to see if this was even possible. In that year, I would just say to the writer and story artists, "Let's just act like we got them. Let's just pretend we got them. Let's not go, well it would be cool to have Pac-Man in the scene but we probably can't get him so I didn’t do it and made up a kind of fake Pac-Man thing. Let’s just pretend we got them. What are different kind of jokes we could tell or situations we could put them in?" And we proceeded that way. It always felt like, looming in the future, there will come a day when we’re going to have to go to these people and show them what we’ve been doing for the past year with their characters.
THR: And they didn’t make things that difficult?
Moore: We decided, let's just go meet these people. Let's talk to them in person, face-to-face, and try to pitch them the movie and how we’re using their characters. So the first one was Pac-Man, and we actually met with Namco at E3, at the video game conference ... I kind of pitched him the moment in that party where Pac-Man is at the buffet table, eating all the food. And he just lit up, just got a big smile and he started laughing and he’s like, "Oh, Pac-Man is eating everything. He’s just going through the party eating everything?” And I said, "Yeah. That’s what he does, right?" And he says, "Yes! He eats! This is the perfect way to use Pac-Man! We would love it! Yes! I’m going to go back to Japan and talk to my people, and we’ll make this happen." And it was like, "Whoa, that’s it? We just sit down with them and pitch them the movie and it goes like that?" So that’s how we proceeded from then on out.
It was actually quite nice to meet with all these people and build these relationships with them, because they really helped a lot, too, when we got into the design process with each of those characters and the animation in each one of them and the look of each one. They know better than anyone what their characters should be like, so let's just send them the animation and see what they say and get their notes and it’ll make for a more convincing performance. They were great. They were very vocal about how tall Bowser is and how Bowser would hold a Styrofoam cup of coffee. And it was great. They’re the guys that know. They’ve been working with these characters for a long time. And the fans know. The fans of those games would know how Bowser would do those things and how he should look and how he should act. We all love those games, but we don’t work on them every day, so it could take us a few more times than we have time for than just going to the guy who knows.
THR: Did they object to things?
Moore: No, they never really objected. The big thing was always about scale. Who was taller? We sent a copy [of a scene] in a very rough form, not even animated versions of the characters, just the rough model. We would send that to them. And Nintendo said, "No, Bowser is a lot taller than Zangief [of Street Fighter] and you need to make him taller." But that was probably the biggest thing: Who’s taller?
THR: It definitely changed the way I saw Bowser and Dr. Robotnik, sitting in what was the equivalent of an AA meeting, Bad-Anon.
Moore: Well, it's like they have to do this stuff every day, and after a while, it has to get to them, being despised and doing mean things, hurting the other players -- so it made sense that they would have a support group where they could speak to like-minded individuals who could back them up.
THR: It made me think, this is a sort of depressing world, these characters doing things with this kind of perpetuity, forever.
Moore: And I would think about that, too. "These poor characters doing the same thing every day." And then I started thinking about, "Well, wait, I wake up in the same bed and go to the same job and do the same thing and go home. Oh my god, I’m like these characters!" It’s very relatable to me. At first, I thought, "I’ve got nothing in common with a video game character." But it’s exactly what you said. That is depressing. That’s bad to have to live a life like that. And I came to a conclusion, "Well, wait a minute, we’re all kind of like that. Our lives are a repeat of days over and over," and I think that’s where the whole heart and main point of the movie came from, was born out of that. You could be going through the same thing every day and you could look at it very negative, or you could look at it very positive and enjoy every day. It’s all your point of view. That’s what I love about the story.
The fact is that, for all intents and purposes, Ralph goes back to what he was doing, but it was an inside job. All the conflict was in his mind. It was all going on between his ears, and he kind of had to look at what a great life he had. He’s earned the respect of people he’s worked with and he has all of these friends, so it’s all about how he looks at it. The character had fallen out of love with himself, and in the end he rediscovers that.
THR: Were there any characters you wish you had gotten in but didn’t?
Moore: Definitely. We wanted to have Mario in the movie. And with Nintendo, they were really great about letting us use characters and props from their games. When we pitched the [support group] scene to them, I said, "Well, we’ve got this scene, it’s kind of a like a support group for bad guys," and they had offered up Bowser themselves. They said, "Oh, well then, Bowser must be in that scene."
THR: Obviously he had to be.
Moore: So it’s like, "Well, great. We’d love to use him." The conversation continued and they said, when talking about Mario, "If you can find a scene that’s as perfect for Mario as that is for Bowser, then we can really have a serious conversation about Mario being in the film." And we said, "Great. That’s terrific. We really appreciate that." We were still working on the story at that time, so I was always looking for a spot where it’d be great to have Mario. And, unfortunately, the way the story was going, everywhere I would try to put him in, it felt like we were forcing the matter. And I felt like I didn’t want to go back to them and say, "Well, here’s how we want to use Mario…" and feel like that wouldn’t be the best way to use him. Because it would be like going to Disney and saying "We’d like to use Mickey in this kind of context. It’s not anything great." Because they wouldn’t let him do it. I’m sure they would think, Mickey is a very iconic character and we’re very protective of how we use him, and that’s how they are with Mario. Mario’s their Mickey. There came a point where I had to make a really tough call and say, "You know what, we didn’t find a scene for Mario, so let’s not try and force it -- and if we make a sequel, then we will really work on more involvement and go back to Nintendo and use the more iconic characters." So, hopefully, we’ll get that chance. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to do a sequel.
THR: Disney doesn’t do many sequels, but Pixar has done some.
Moore: Yeah, and I think that Disney’s at a point where -- Disney’s only done one sequel, and that was The Rescuers Down Under, and it was years apart from the first one. My background is The Simpsons and Futurama, where we would go seasons and it was a delight to work with the characters again. To expand on their world and keep playing with them and making them deeper and evolving them and discovering new things about that. That’s what I love to do, so it would be a dream come true to play with these characters. And I know everyone who worked on the film, the cast, they’re totally down with it. We had such a great time making the film, so we’d love to do it again.
THR: Disney Animation has seen ebbs and flows of success, and different bright periods and darker periods, so since John Lasseter’s taken over, do you, as someone who’s been in the business a long time, see a kind of renaissance of sorts, or see concrete changes there?
Moore: You hear people saying there’s a renaissance going on, and I hear that word a lot, and I think when people are throwing around words like that, then it’s happening. Those people aren’t using words just being flip. I started four years ago at Disney and, like you said, the place during the late 90’s and early 2000’s for the first time had real competition from other studios. In the 90’s, they were the only game in town, then they totally ruled that second golden age, then there were Pixar and DreamWorks and Blue Sky and Illumination. I think they were going through a period where they were trying to figure out, "Well, who are we in this contemporary landscape? What is it that we can contribute?" And I think go forward from days of wandering in the woods and groping around and rediscover itself as a studio and when John came in, it went to being a culture of CalArts, from that school.
I think the studio went through a huge change culturally and creatively. The types of movies that started being developed, and directors questioning, well, what is a Disney film? I’m really excited that the studio is trying, because when I began my career in the early 90’s, late 80’s Disney was not something -- though I respected it and liked what they were doing in those years -- it’s not like I thought I wanted to be a part of that studio right now. And my career took me to things like The Simpsons and Futurama. But where Disney is right now, man, this place is really cool, and this is a great place to work -- because it’s the oldest animation studio in town, it's got this huge legacy, but something about it right now, and I’ve worked at a lot of very young studios, studios that kind of flew by the seat of their pants and took big risks and really believed in their vision, and it feels like that type of studio.
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin