Just like its older, hipper brother Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Wreck-It Ralph playfully erases the sins of past video-game film adaptations. What most producers don’t understand is that video games are, forgive the pun, child's play. For much of the genre’s sordid history, the movies have been tooled for adults, taking upon a murkier tone and injecting cliched back-stories, as well as disobeying their beloved sources. Fans spend hours upon hours glued to a video screen, familiarizing with fictional multi-bit characters better than members of their own families. When personal vision gets in the way, it’s D.O.A.
Except, of course, in the case of Wreck-It-Ralph. The titular character is a boulder-fisted oaf (John C. Reilly) with the build of Donkey Kong and the appetite for destruction as healthy as all the Rampage monsters combined. He's the bad guy in the video-game-within-the-film Fix-It-Felix Jr., opposite the game’s title character, an affable, do-goodnik protagonist (Jack MacBrayer).
Fix It Felix Jr. follows a familiar game formula: Ralph lumbers atop the apartment building, smashing windows and crumbling bricks in his wake. It’s up to Felix to fix everything,and when he does, he’s awarded a medal for his heroism. Ralph is tossed by the apartment folk to the ground below. Quarter after quarter, game after game, for thirty years, it’s the same old song. Like the life of every other character in every other video game they share arcade floor space with, theirs is one of routine and repetition.
All video game movies exist as though their source material never did. Not Wreck It Ralph. It follows a familiar Toy Story/Purple Rose of Cairo crossroad into a lovingly nostalgic wonderland . All the arcade game characters are blissfully aware of their existence as entertainment. When the lights of the arcade drop and the backs turn, the charade drops. Adversaries become buddies and grab a root beer at Tapper, the barroom game classic. How do they get there? Through Game Central Station, a terminal existing within the confines of a surge protector. Everyone recognizes another, and with few exceptions, everybody is buddy-buddy when the day is through.
Ralph, however, is an exception. Felix is the hero that’s always praised and invited to all the penthouse parties. Ralph is the neglected zero who sleeps underneath all the leftover bricks in a dump. Such is the life of the bad guy; typecasted and marginalized, without any chance to prove himself capable of good. Ralph grows so depressed by this notion that he attends a support group featuring everyone from Bowser to M. Bison. Good is good, bad is bad. No room for gray area.
Ralph decides to go from zero to hero. His first attempt is when he crosses over into Hero’s Duty, a first person shooter cut from the Metal Gear Solid/Call of Duty cloth, headed by tough gal Calhoun (Jane Lynch), who gets some good laughs with her drill sergeant banter. Ralph succeeds, but with his usual clumsiness, he ends up wreaking havoc and ends up spiraling into the game’s polar opposite, a wholly Japanese style racing game called Sugar Rush. His worst nightmares here are in the form of a chocolate pond, a sweet but secretly sinister king, and a glitchy sugar-haired enfant terrible named Vanellope (Sarah Silverman).
It’s the bond of Vanellope and Ralph that’s the sweet lifesblood of Wreck-It Ralph, and it never gets too saccharine. As with many of the Disney pictures that focus on platonic friendship, a rushed romance between Felix and Lynch is padded for a balance.It’s not necessary to the film’s survival, but it adds some charming moments. Plus, the casting is exceptional. Each character complements their actor or actress perfectly, rather than the movie just being an expensive, glossy Celebrity Script Reading.
Bad mistakes? They've made a few. The rushed exposition involving Vanellope and memory loss, for one. The movie often risks becoming punnier than Batman and Robin. On the upside, the animation offers some tremendous set pieces as well as a road race that puts the Podrace sequence in The Phantom Menace to shame.
Wreck-It Ralph does not stand beside the greatest animated Disney features, but is certainly is the most imaginative non-Pixar fare in years, and the best of the year.