For just a moment early on, Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph looks like it’s attempting to ape Pixar’s Toy Story. There are certainly superficial similarities: Both animated films initially focus on the relationship between children and their playthings. Both address what those playthings—some of them original creations, some of them familiar, nostalgia-evoking icons—do in their downtime, when no human beings are looking; both draw on the irresistible idea that the rich, elaborate lives children imagine for their toys aren’t an illusion, but are just the tip of the iceberg compared to their actual worlds. And given that both films are nominally aimed at kids, there’s some similarity in the messages about the importance of both being yourself and liking yourself, and about the redemptive power of friendship.
But Wreck-It Ralph has loftier ambitions than imitating a previous success. It’s a wildly exciting ride, the fastest-moving, most enthusiastically kinetic kids’ action film since The Incredibles. But it’s also a surprisingly ambitious, crafty gimcrack that piles subplot upon subplot, building a teetering tower of ideas that seems more suited to a full season of television than a single feature film. As it turns out, it’s largely an elaborate shell game: Time and again, the script presents important plot points, disguising them as offhand comments or throwaway ideas, then reveals their significance at a crucial moment. Eventually, this process leads to a glorious collapse of the tower, as all the seemingly unrelated or unresolved threads pull together at once. It’s a terrific trick, and it makes for a film that’s both viscerally enjoyable and narratively thrilling.
And while the film begins in an arcade where kids gather to play the characters’ games, and it intermittently addresses how the in-game world and the players’ world interact, it’s much less interested than the Toy Story movies in the importance of human contact. To the videogame avatars of Wreck-It Ralph, their game functions are essentially jobs, which may be rewarding, terrifying, or just a daily chore. Where the Toy Story protagonists live for meaningful contact with the kids who own them, Ralph’s characters are clock-punchers who have to find their own meaning in a much larger, richer, and more complicated interior world.
John C. Reilly stars as Wreck-It Ralph, the cranky, lunkish villain of a Donkey Kong-meets-Rampage arcade game in which he perpetually smashes a fancy apartment building built atop his former home. The game’s hero is Fix-It Felix Jr. (30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer), a perky handyman who battles Ralph by repairing whatever he smashes. For 30 years, Ralph has thrown retributive temper tantrums and chipper Felix has cleaned up the mess, at least when their arcade is open and their game is in use. After hours, in the much more lavishly rendered, shared inner world of videogames, Ralph glumly retreats to his solitary home in the dump, or to the bar from the arcade game Tapper, while Felix hangs out in his newly repaired apartment building, enjoying the respect and adulation of its bouncy little inhabitants. (The visual gag contrasting those subsidiary characters’ smooth, modern CGI design with their ultra-jerky 8-bit movement is one of the best subtle jokes of a movie thoroughly packed with them.)
Eventually, Ralph decides he’s tired of his assigned role and wants to be part of the social world of his games, and after a disastrous attempt at fitting in, he becomes fixated on the idea that he’ll be accepted if he can just earn a medal like the one his game awards Felix after every successful play. So he abandons his game and steals a medal from a more modern, Starcraft-meets-Gears Of War battle game, presided over by grim-and-gritty squad leader Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch). Then he loses the medal to perky sprite Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a driver-wannabe within a nauseatingly cute Japanese-inspired racing-cart game called Sugar Rush, where the entire world, and most of its occupants, are made of candy. (Vanellope’s name is pronounced like a blend of “vanilla” and “Penelope”; most of the other racers in her game somewhat resemble Strawberry Shortcake characters, and have distinct flavor themes.) Events in both those locales spawn ongoing storylines, which Wreck-It Ralph aptly juggles long enough that it’s enticingly impossible to tell, at times, what the movie is really about. Meanwhile, since Ralph isn’t present to wreck things in his own game, the arcade owner (Ed O’Neill) decides the machine is on the fritz, and plans to junk it, so Felix heads out to find Ralph and bring him home to save their little world.
Wreck-It Ralph rivals Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World for the sheer number of videogame in-jokes. It would take many viewings to sort out all of the background characters licensed from other games, though some of them get significant screen time—particularly Pac-Man and his orange-ghost enemy Clyde, Street Fighter’s Zangief, and the entire displaced and homeless cast of Q*bert. A handful of established videogame talents also turn up to voice characters they’ve done in the past: Roger Craig Smith as Sonic The Hedgehog, Gerald C. Rivers as M. Bison, and more. There’s a cute use of the Konami Code and the occasional cutaway from the videogame inner world into what people might see on the arcade machine’s screen. And there are any number of non-videogame references as well, ranging from a ridiculous but adorable Wizard Of Oz visual joke to Firefly/Dollhouse star Alan Tudyk voicing Sugar Rush’s daffy, mostly affable King Candy in direct imitation of chortling Disney vet Ed Wynn (the Mad Hatter from 1951’s Alice In Wonderland and Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins). Various events and significant moments throughout the film are noticeably reminiscent of movies from The Iron Giant to Shrek to Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
And yet all the familiarity doesn’t keep Wreck-It Ralph from finding its own tone: a Pixar-worthy mixture of authentic feeling and reckless, joyful energy. First-time feature director Rich Moore is an animation-industry veteran whose directorial credits include more than 70 Futurama episodes, a stint on The Critic, and dozens of early Simpsons episodes, including the nigh-unbeatable “Marge Vs. The Monorail.” His directorial work on tearjerkers like Futurama’s “Jurassic Bark” and The Simpsons’ “Lisa’s Substitute” proves his capacity for juggling humor and pained pathos, both of which are in evidence here. And screenwriters Phil Johnston (Cedar Rapids) and Jennifer Lee have produced a structure unusual for a kids’ film, one where the story’s seemingly obvious primary goal gets obscured along the way, subsumed into new goals and at times lost entirely among terrific setpieces like the “mini-game” where Ralph and Vanellope design a candy racing car together. The way the film wanders through in-jokes and narrative byways without losing its relevance or momentum is half its appeal. The way it remains coherent, consistent, and compelling throughout, though, is a marvel.
It’s tempting to ascribe at least some of the credit to Disney execs and Pixar vets John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, particularly since Wreck-It Ralph has such a consistent balance of the elements that make the best Pixar films: a sense of heart and of thoroughly earned emotion, combined with a rip-roaring pace and a fantastic attention to detail. Sugar Rush’s absurd candy-constructed world is particularly stunning, but the conscious effort to differentiate the different types of games is well-observed and sometimes hilarious. Every moment of the film feels thought-out, from the way characters change designs when visiting other games to the way Sergeant Calhoun clears her throat and visibly snaps into character mode before delivering her standard introduction to the player who’s just inserted a quarter into her game. That kind of focus, the attitude that no line of dialogue is wasted and no visual detail is unimportant, makes Wreck-It Ralph more than another standard cutesy reference-fest with some exciting chases and an eventual upbeat message. It gives it the kind of depth that creates new worlds and makes them seem plausible, and suggests the boundless potential just on the other side of that glass arcade screen.
Note: Wreck-It Ralph screens with a charming seven-minute animated short, “Paperman.” It’s a strange fit with the feature—a magical-realist, black-and-white romantic fantasy that visually evokes old-school Disney cel animation and ’50s cinema. It’s the proof-of-concept piece for a new software suite that blends CGI modeling and hand-drawn art, producing a classic Disney look, but with beautiful depth and shading. Kids may not go for its mildly offbeat boy-meets-girl swooning, but it’s a lovely piece visually, and the innovative technique makes it a likely candidate for this year’s Best Animated Short Oscar.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Wreck-It Ralph’s Spoiler Space.