Wreck-It Ralph Writer Swears He Wasn't Angling for Toy Tie Ins

Ralph Wreck! But Phil Johnston says he's more than a toy.

Wreck-It Ralph watches a beefy video game villain undergo an identity crisis: he’s a villain by trade, but as his peers in Bad-Anon say “I’m a bad guy, but I’m not a bad guy.” Nonetheless, Ralph’s work as a baddie has held him back in the rest of life, and like the toys in Toy Story, these video game characters have a surprisingly rich rest of life.

It’s not ironic this film is about a guy wrestling with himself when Ralph is about to enter the dizzying life of a Disney property. He’ll juggle multiple identities in the market: is he a game? Is he a toy? Does he live in a pile of bricks? Apparently he doesn’t have to decide.

Phil Johnston, one of the screenwriter of Wreck-It Ralph, knows how to cleverly evade pointed questions. When I asked if his protagonist Ralph was invented to be a part of a web of games and toy tie-ins, he said it didn’t start that way, but it seems fairly clear he’s new to Disney’s cross-platform megaverse. (He eventually admits thinking about his story in such big terms would have freaked him out.) But beyond the cynicism, this guy loves his characters, which is more than you can say for a lot of films. Through his hipster haircut and flannel shirt he sure seems to identify with Ralph, his frustrated victim of gentrification--but he wouldn't call him that. Those are my words.

MoviesWithButter: So this is made for Christmas marketing?
Phil Johnston: It started with “how can we sell the most toys?"

MWB: Oh, Yeah?
PJ: No, I was just saying to Clark (Spencer), the producer, that it’s surreal that there are toys and games and dubbing into other languages. It’s really weird to me this is so vast--this Disney empire--but that’s how they do it.

MWB: Sure but your premise lends itself to multiplicity.
PJ: You really can’t think about it—at least I didn’t, because I’ve never written a story of this scope. The idea in and of itself is an icon-like idea. But in the beginning it was just me and Rich (Moore, the director) in a room asking: what’s the story? Who are the characters? And after that you layer in the video games. I think it would have freaked me out if I was like “they’re going to make amusement park rides” which I don’t know they are but if you think “there could be toys and games," you’ll freak yourself out.

MWB: I’ll just throw this out, but a section that pixelates your image could make a really hip addition to the Haunted House.
PJ: Oooh!!! Existential!

MWB: Ralph lives in a dump while the characters in Niceville live in penthouses. You said something about how your characters could be trash collectors and you’d still love them. Is that something about class?
PJ: If you take Ralph and remove him from the world of video games and make him a trash collector, for instance, he’s still a guy who’s done a job for 30 years and questions why he doesn’t have what others have: more friends, more love. On the surface he’s a guy filled with longing and regret. A complicated dude trying to figure things out who needs to learn how to love and accept himself. When I stared writing this my wife was pregnant, I was almost 40 and I’d never had a kid. I didn’t know if I wanted a kid. I have a daughter and over the course of the movie, added a son. I’m personalizing this but before I lived selfishly and now I live entirely for my children. This [movie] is about a guy learning to give of himself and to me, every word I just said, none of it has to do with video games. It’s exclusively about a guy mid-crisis who figures things out through the movie.

MWB: Sounds comprehensive…and also like a working class Toy Story.
PJ: Maybe. We didn’t look at Toy Story and went 'we need to do this and this' but the fact we’re in a world of…

MWB: Work-a-day toys?
PJ: Yeah. What that movie did that was groundbreaking was it didn’t matter if they were toys it was the characters that were interesting. Pixar’s broken so much ground doing that and hopefully we can be included in that pantheon.

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