Coming into Wreck-it Ralph, I would say I was cautiously optimistic. The trailers were quite good, and the decision to actually license legitimate established video games certainly seemed to point in the right direction. At the same time, there was a lingering worry that the film could devolve into the sort of pop culture barrage without the underlying strength of story that doomed the Shrek series in the long run. Would Wreck-it Ralph be able to support its own gimmick? In practice, thanks to the work of the voice actors and the script, the answer is yes.
John C. Reilly’s Ralph is essentially a human version of Donkey Kong. His job within his video game is to terrorize an apartment building, only to be saved by Fix-it Felix (Jack McBrayer) and his magic hammer. This is all well and good until the lights go off in the arcade, and Ralph is ostracized from the rest of his community for being the bad guy, despite having a generally good nature and an unfortunate clumsy knack for smashing things and a quick temper. Things come to a head when Ralph is not invited to a 30th anniversary party for the game, and he sets out to prove that he’s not just the villain of a game, and can be the hero once in a while as well. What follows is very much a standard Disney movie from a plot perspective, so the video game world gimmick becomes necessary to keep everything fresh.
There is a litany of tiny little details and visual gags that pop all over the screen, from graffiti on the walls of Game Central Station (i.e. the surge protector into which all the arcade cabinets are plugged) to the way that the citizens of the Fix-it Felix game move in a herky jerky motion that mimics the limited animation of 80’s arcade games. It’s no surprise that Rich Moore, a veteran of both The Simpsons and Futurama directed. I could spend far too much time going into all the references, and I entirely expect there to be quite a few enjoyable Blu-Ray extras/commentaries about the subject. Still, what actually matters are the central characters, all of whom bring the necessary charm and pathos to keep the story from veering into the sort of reductive children’s films that cannot relate to anyone above the age of seven.
In addition to Reilly and McBrayer, the main cast is rounded out by Sarah Silverman, playing a precocious Bratz-like scamp from the Mario-Kart-plus-Candy-Land-plus-diabetes inspired racing game Sugar Rush, and Jane Lynch, the hard-nosed heroine of Hero’s Duty, the post-apocalyptic sci-fi shooter that’s equal parts Gears of War, Halo, Mass Effect and every other clone that’s been released in the new century all the way down to a penchant for tragic back stories. The characters must rise above their genre conventions to work together and save the day. Again, it’s all a pretty standard structure that is executed with aplomb.
Wreck-it Ralph isn’t on the level of the Toy Story films or The Incredibles or other animated films likely created by Pixar. What it does provide is an undeniably enjoyable experience, much like Disney’s last animated November release, 2010’s Tangled. It’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World’s kid brother, brimming with the same sort of energy and charm (and the same 8-bit opening title card). It’s well worth the price of admission.