We’ve seen much of Disney’s new animated film, Wreck-It Ralph, before. Movies like Despicable Me and Megamind have already spun traditional stories by adopting the bad guys’ point of view. The Toy Story series mined the subject of toys’ secret lives to history-making effect. You can even find homemade comedy videos on YouTube that ponder what video-game characters do when they’re not being controlled by gamers. All this makes Wreck-It Ralph derivative, and yet I found myself charmed by this movie, and I don’t think I’ll be the only one.
John C. Reilly provides the voice of the title character, the 9-foot-tall, 645-pound villain of a 1980s video game. After 30 years of destroying the same apartment building with his oversized fists, Ralph feels unappreciated and sick of his job. All he ever gets for his trouble is being tossed off the roof by the game’s eponymous hero, Fix-It Felix Jr. (voiced by Jack McBrayer). Eventually, Ralph scandalizes his fellow game characters by jumping into other games so he can be the good guy for once.
After a brief, terrified stint in a light- gun shooter game called Hero’s Duty, Ralph winds up in a girly auto racing game called Sugar Rush. The preceding games are all fictitious, yet the film takes place in a world — specifically, an anonymous suburban video arcade — where these characters freely intermingle with those from actual games. When the arcade closes for the day, Ken and Ryu from Street Fighter break off their hand-to-hand combat and hang out at the bar in Tapper. Screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston (the latter wrote the delightful Cedar Rapids) excel at laying out the ground rules for this video-game universe and raise some big laughs with the collision of games, as with the location of the support group meeting for video-game villains that Ralph attends. The witty in-jokes and deft cameo appearances by game characters like Sonic the Hedgehog (voiced by Roger Craig Smith) make this movie required viewing for gamers of a certain age.
Yet the movie would be too thin if nostalgia were all it had going for it. Thankfully, that’s not the case. In Sugar Rush, Ralph meets Vanellope von Schweetz (voiced by Sarah Silverman), a little girl who intensely annoys Ralph until he realizes that she’s a lot like him, an exile from her fellow game characters who lives in a trash heap because she was created by a programming glitch. (Indeed, she tends to fritz out into a blue blur when she gets emotional.) Where Ralph is sick of obeying the rules, Vanellope only wants a chance to play by them by taking part in Sugar Rush’s car race. Ralph’s attempts to help her lead to a fraught relationship that takes surprising turns, especially after the evil king of Sugar Rush (voiced by Alan Tudyk) gives Ralph a cruelly plausible explanation of his treatment of Vanellope.
The complicated plot also takes in Sgt. Calhoun (voiced by Jane Lynch), a supersoldier from Hero’s Duty in pursuit of a robot space bug that Ralph unwittingly brings from her game into Sugar Rush, threatening the whole arcade. The filmmakers botch the time element of this story — Ralph needs to set everything right before his absence from Fix-It Felix causes the arcade owner to unplug the game — but it all still goes down much less awkwardly than it should.
Most of the movie takes place in Sugar Rush, and the animators have great fun rendering the game’s candy-and-cake landscape — check out the diet cola mountain where Vanellope lives, with stalactites made of Mentos hanging from the ceiling. Equally, though, they enjoy contrasting that game world with the sci-fi dystopia of Hero’s Duty and the 8-bit graphics look of Fix-It Felix. With its plethora of animation styles, the movie is a pleasure simply to look at.
It’s a pleasure to hear, too, thanks to the assured comedians in this cast, which also includes Mindy Kaling as a mean-girl racer. Reilly brings great energy to Ralph and his unreasonable grudge against Pac-Man, but it’s Lynch’s personality that shines best as she takes Calhoun’s hard-bitten gruntspeak into weird hyperbole. Surveying the damage caused by the bug, she says, “Hell and Armageddon just had a baby, and it is ugly!”
I could rap Wreck-It Ralph for its lack of originality or its failure to engage with the newer, more open-ended games that tend to be played on home consoles, but I’d only feel like Donkey Kong himself for doing so. (Besides, introducing Ralph to an open-world game is a challenge better left for the sequel.) This movie is simply a terrific piece of entertainment, so bring your quarters.
Voices by John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman. Directed by Rich Moore. Written by Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston. Rated PG.