Spinning off of an imaginative, Monsters, Inc-like concept about a community of video game characters living within the same arcade, Wreck-It Ralph may seem at a distance to be little more than a nostalgia trip for parents and a seizure-inducing distraction for their kids, but the marketing is a mirage. While it starts out merely as a clever homage to the arcade culture of the eighties, it transitions into something more substantial and compelling before its ingenious but admittedly thin premise has the opportunity to wear out its welcome. You need not be a gamer in order to relate to this beautifully spun tale about seeking acceptance and discovering self-worth, which is frankly the best movie Walt Disney Studios has given us since its 1990s heyday. It's like the Pixar movie we never got last year (what is this Cars 2 of which you speak?).
We all know what it's like to be in a rut; that feeling of desperation that comes from going through the motions of a dissatisfying routine, the frustration of being doomed to your “lot in life” when you desire so much more. Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) understands it all too well. He, the villain of an antiquated arcade game called “Fix-It Felix Jr.”, has been performing the same Sisyphean grind for 30 years. Ralph wrecks the building, Felix (John McBrayer) fixes the building. Felix is rewarded with medals and admiration from the tenants, Ralph is tossed in the mud and made to sleep on a heap of discarded bricks all by himself. Sunrise, sunset.
But three decades of being lonely and undervalued is as much as Ralph's fragile self-esteem is willing to tolerate. He's movin' out. Ralph stows away on a first-person shooter called “Hero's Duty”, overseen by the tough-as-brass Sgt. Calhoun (Jane Lynch) in order to win a medal that might finally earn him some respect. Of course, things don't go so smoothly, as he inadvertently unleashes a virus that threatens the whole arcade.
The often hilarious – and occasionally quite moving – screenplay by Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston wisely dispenses with the bulk of the video game references in the first act while establishing for us the rules that govern our pixellated players and the worlds they inhabit. Once the arcade is closed , game characters can hop the train to different games via the power cords that link them together. This allows, say, all the bad guys to convene at Pac-Man's for their villain support group, or say, grab a drink at Tapper's (yes, the very same 1983 classic) after a hard day of running around on screen for quarter-popping gamers. But they must take caution, as dying outside of your own game will not allow you to regenerate. Worse yet, if a game is unplugged then everyone inside goes down with the ship. And you thought just playing video games was violent!
All this exposition would be a pill if it weren't for the wall-to-wall humour that accompanies it. Director Rich Moore, the Emmy-winning director of Futurama and The Simpsons, has the screen filled with subtle sight gags and delightful details that old-school game fanatics will enjoy freeze-framing on home video to spot. It's all a barrel of fun to be sure, but Moore and his savvy writers know that this can't hold an entire film. Their key tactic is that they lay off the in-jokes and focus solely on character and plot development in the second act, which sees poor Ralph winding up in a candy-themed kart racer game called “Sugar Rush”, where he loses his medal to an impish wannabe speedster Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman).
The shift the film takes at this point from witty pop culture allusion to buddy comedy may seem like a step backwards at first, but the thematic and character foundations that end up getting laid here are invaluable to the third act payoffs, as the relationship between Ralph and Vanellope becomes the heart of the film. Both are outsiders who yearn to be embraced by others but are damned by the labels bestowed upon them; one a bad guy, the other a “glitch”. Reilly and Silverman are instrumental in bringing this unexpected dynamic of the film to life. Reilly is warm and appealing, but also embodies a prickliness that comes from an unfulfilled life. And it's much to Silverman's credit that her character, who could easily have fallen off the tightrope that suspends her so precariously above the threshold of insufferable annoyance, actually elicits even more sympathy than the already sympathetic lead.
Vibrantly designed and featuring outstanding character animation, Wreck-It Ralph is no less impressive a technical feat than it is a specimen of first rate storytelling. The score is a bit on the nose at times, but the overall sound design by Gary Rydstrom (who's been tearing it up on the animation front this year with also Brave and From Up on Poppy Hill to his name) is pretty great.
***1/2 out of ****