What more could a millennial video game fan want? I even remember sitting down in the theater and saying, "Please just don't let this movie suck." And it didn't. It was everything I could have hoped for.
What it also was, and this rarely gets commented on, was a masterful lesson in storytelling. Yes, Pixar and Disney pretty much have a handle on how to make these tear-jerking, fast-paced movies without being maudlin. And, yes, movies are a collaborative process, and there were probably script doctors, and an animated movie in particular has to be polished to a shine before anyone will shell out the cash on it.
But knowing that, let's set that aside for a minute and look at the story as though it were a novel. When you boil any story down to brass tacks it requires two things: a protagonist and a goal. Sure, an antagonist is nice, and a love interest is nice, and a setting is nice, but you don't really need any of that stuff.
Think of your most beloved children's books. THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR had nothing but a protagonist and a goal. Ditto THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD. That's all you need for a story at its most fundamental.
Now when "Wreck-It Ralph" starts out, Ralph is feeling restless. His game is thirty years old and no one appreciates him. He even attends a weekly Bad-Anon meeting for the first time. Ralph's real goal, if I can just rip the Band-Aid off at the start, is to be happy. But he doesn't recognize that for almost the entire duration of the movie. Instead, he decides that his goal is to be a good guy. For him, this means winning a medal, because that's what good guys do. He thinks winning a medal will earn him respect, which is what he thinks will make him happy.
Now basically two parallel stories start. The real story is about Ralph trying to find his happiness. But since he doesn't understand that that's what he wants, he sets out to become a good guy by winning a medal. This is doubly ironic because a medal is simply an acknowledgement of an achievement, and Ralph doesn't even achieve what he's supposed to in order to win it. He cheats, essentially, scaling the building and taking the medal. He was even willing to just take one from Tapper's lost and found. He thinks he's on a quest for one thing, but he's really on a quest for another thing, and even when he gets what he thinks he's questing for, he doesn't understand that it's just a symbol for what he really wants: satisfaction.
So what happens next? Ralph ends up in Sugar Rush and he still thinks he's after his medal, but now to get his medal he has to help Vanellope make a car and learn to drive and enter the race. Ralph's goals are like a damn Matryoshka doll at this point. He really wants to be happy, but he thinks he wants a medal, and he thinks to get the medal he has to help out Vanellope, which is genuinely making him happy, but he's lost sight of what his real goal is, if he ever even knew it.
Now enter King Candy, who literally hands Ralph the medal he's been after. Two times now Ralph has gotten what he thought he wanted without going through the proper steps to earn it. And two times now he's failed to learn that lesson.
At this point King Candy gives Ralph a speech where he explains that sometimes doing the right thing for somebody means not giving them what they want. Now this is actually one of the most interesting parts of the movie, and, in a sense, I'm sorry that it turned out to be a cop-out. It was almost retconned when it turned out that King Candy was the villainous virus Turbo all along. But, I mean, again, it's a kid's cartoon so I understand why they did it. But can you imagine if it had turned out that King Candy was being earnest? If it had turned out that Candy was secretly looking out for Vanellope the whole time and that in helping her, Ralph was actually hurting her? That's some heavy fucking stuff right there.
But, okay, it was a children's cartoon so it didn't go down that route. Ralph returns to his own game and realizes that while he's accomplished what was ostensibly his goal - winning a medal and living in the penthouse - through his selfish actions he's endangered the lives of everyone he cares about. And, perhaps worst of all, he's betrayed the only real friend he ever had, Vanellope.
Now his goal shifts again: to right the wrongs he's caused. At this point, we've actually stripped away one layer of self-deception, because Ralph's aspirations to be a good guy never had any damn thing at all to do with winning a medal. A person's status as a hero or villain is determined by their actions. King Candy, for instance, is certainly the good guy (protagonist) of his game, but his actions clearly make him a bad guy (antagonist.) Meanwhile, Ralph, who is ostensibly the bad guy, has actually been a good guy up until now because he's shown up to work every day to do a vital job, in spite of the jeers he receives because of it. Admittedly, the Nicelanders shouldn't have been jerkoffs, but it's only when Ralph goes off the reservation that he becomes a genuine bad guy.
But all is not lost and this is a Disney movie, so, of course, Ralph saves the day by heroically sacrificing himself - the very definition of what it means to be a good guy - while reassuring himself that it's okay because he's just the bad guy. And then the final layer of self-deception is stripped away, because good and bad - as the zombie said in the very first scene - are just labels. And Ralph gets to be happy, which was his goal all along, if he had ever been willing to just admit it to himself, by having friends.
It's all very complicated, twisty stuff from a storytelling perspective. But while the movie has a lot to say about the nature of good and evil, happiness, and real friendship, it never feels like a Dostoevsky novel. It keeps all of its shifting goalposts in plain view, so the kids are never confused.
So, like I said, the storytelling lesson we can take away from "Wreck-It Ralph" is to look at your characters' actual goals, and the false goals they tell themselves will get them there. It can add a whole other level of depth to your story, because people really do deceive themselves about what they really want.