You don’t need to be a die-hard gamer to appreciate the many charms of Wreck-It Ralph. Sure, there are references to things like Frogger, Street Fighter, Halo, and beyond, but the film wisely underplays them. If you’re looking for a nostalgia trip, it’s here, but the movie is far more interested in Ralph’s journey from video game villain to medal-wielding champion.
The programming of Fix-It Felix, a Donkey Kong knock-off, dictates that Ralph is a wrecker, destined to live in a literal dump. After 30-years of being the bad guy, Ralph jumps games looking for a way to break free of his code and be the hero. The filmmakers inventively showcase the inner workings of arcade games. Characters can travel through plugs and cables to other games, and the surge protector acts like Grand Central Station. It’s simple and serves the story while allowing for several clever gags. This early section is really where the references reside. Once Ralph ends up in a sugar-coated version of Mario Kart, the main plot takes hold and the nods fade out.
In fact, most the movie takes place inside this one game. This is a huge bit of restraint from the filmmakers. It’s tempting to have Ralph jumping from classic game to classic game, and that might be more fun, but it would be an empty gesture. The scope is narrow but they certainly animate the hell out of it. The main game is a colorful candy land that pops right off the screen and gives you a toothache. There might even be more candy jokes than gamer jokes.
It’s on Lollipop Lane that Ralph runs into the rambunctious misfit, Vanellope. She also knows what it’s like to be the outsider and her relationship with Ralph is the real story. The video game stuff is just the trappings. It’s funny and clever but rarely guffaw inducing. Surprisingly, it has a real and well-earned emotional punch. The voice cast is practically perfect and includes John C. Reilly as Ralph, Alan Tudyk, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, and Sarah Silverman as Vanellope. Silverman is the surprise standout in a terrific lineup. Vanellope walks right up to the edge of annoyingly cute but remains likable.
It’s hard to find a negative thing to say about a movie that references Diet Coke/Mentos and kill screens. It’s the best kind of four-quadrant movie. It offers a little something for everyone before tapping into a thematic level that’s universal. If you’re a gamer, young or old, I think you’re already lining up. Well, everyone else should be too.
Note: I saw Wreck-It Ralph in 3D. It was fine. I could take it or leave it in that format.
Also, a wonderful short called Paperman is attached to the feature. It’s a black & white tale of romance finding its way into a colorless corporate workday. It’s sweet, witty and actually gets a lot of use out of the 3D. The animation is a 2D/CG hybrid that reminded me of The Iron Giant (always a good thing). I wasn’t a fan of the turn it takes from practical to magical, but the execution is so fantastic that I didn’t mind.