Tapping into three decades of video games to create its rich and referential universe, Disney's “Wreck-It Ralph” bounces from 8-bit driving games to photorealistic first-person shooters and beyond, showing obvious affection for the arcade culture at its center.
Much like “Tangled,” Disney's previous non-Pixar computer animated release, “Wreck-It Ralph” is less conceptually ambitious than the films from its sister division, but thanks to some inspired writing and art direction, “Ralph” does just fine without the Pixar pedigree.
Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the villain of “Fix-It Felix Jr.,” a Donkey Kong-like game from the golden age of video arcades in which he continually bashes holes in a high-rise apartment called Niceland while handyman Felix (Jack McBrayer) instantly repairs the damage. Each night, after the “Nicelanders” topple him off the building, the 600-pound oaf lumbers off to sleep in a garbage dump. After 30 years, Ralph is tired of being the villain — he attends a “Bad-Anon” meeting inside the “Pac-Man” game with various other heavies from other consoles in the arcade.
One of Ralph's few refuges is Grand Game Central, the arcade's surge-protection system where characters can interact with their peers from other games. In his quest to gain good-guy status, Ralph enlists in “Hero's Duty,” a first-person shooter where he sneaks into battle alongside statuesque Sgt. Calhoun (Jane Lynch) against a cyber-bug army, but the results are disastrous. Hoping to fix things and retain the coveted medal he earned in “Duty,” Ralph lands in “Sugar Rush,” a “Mario Kart”-like racing game populated by tart moppets such as Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) and ruled by King Candy, an over-the-top sendup of Disney's Mad Hatter voiced by Alan Tudyk using his best Ed Wynn impression.
Most of the action centers on Ralph's adventure in “Sugar Rush,” where his hero status hinges on whether he can help Vanellope, a programming “glitch” who frequently dissolves into digitized flashes, achieve regular character status against the wishes of King Candy, who bears a long-simmering agenda against the pixilated pixie. Ralph's disappearance from “Fix-It Felix Jr.” puts the game itself in jeopardy, forcing Felix to go in search of his nemesis.
Three separate logic threads tie “Wreck-It Ralph” together: Glitches cannot leave their own games, characters that die outside their games cannot regenerate, and once a game is retired or breaks, its characters populate Grand Game Central in perpetuity. This means classic characters such as Q*bert haunt the place as cautionary tales for guys like Ralph who are part of the same generation but still collect plenty of quarters, and the stakes for Ralph, Vanellope and Felix all remain high.
With the exception of Tudyk's King Candy, the main characters in “Wreck-It Ralph” strongly resemble their voice talent, especially Silverman's Vanellope. This is not always a plus for computer-animated features, but it works wonders in “Wreck-It Ralph” — these characters feel exceptionally well conceived. The film also benefits from its shifting structure, since moving from game to game ensures that the look and feel of “Wreck-It Ralph” changes each time the characters enter a new console.
Most of all, this funny and imaginative film will speak to several generations of gamers, whether it's parents who poured their allowances into “Defender” and “Pole Position,” kids who connect with Kinect or teenagers fully immersed into “Skyrim.” All in all, “Wreck-It Ralph” racks up points throughout and winds up with a high score.
— George Lang
Starring: John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk. (Some rude humor and mild action/violence)