Disney sure knows how to make headlines. Their recent acquisition of LucasFilm Ltd. was the news item of the week, with everyone mumbling about the implications for the “Star Wars” universe. Does this mean Mickey has to join the dark side? Or is the vast empire of Disney too much for even Darth Vader? Financial considerations aside, one thing is certain; Disney still knows how to make a wonderful family feature and they’ve done it again with the excellent “Wreck-It Ralph.” This film is an absolute blast, and a love letter to the by-gone “arcade generation.” That it is riotously funny as well makes it accessible to anyone looking for a good time at the movies.
The ingenuity of “Wreck-It Ralph” comes from its classic setting within the world of arcade video games. Those who fondly remember Pac-Man and Frogger will catch the references and in-jokes, but there is still plenty to enjoy and laugh at for people of all ages. The premise also allows for a variety of animation styles and unique visuals, which gloriously shows the creative potential for animated features outside of 3D. You can see “‘Wreck-It Ralph” in 3D, but I can assure you it adds nothing to the film and only dims the beautiful color palate.
The Ralph (John C. Reilly) of the title is a character within the arcade game Fix-It Felix Jr. If you are familiar with the classic Donkey Kong or Rampage, you might get an idea of what this game is like. Ralph’s job is to clamber up the side of a building and start smashing it to bits while the building’s residents scream in terror. Enter Felix, Jr. (Jack McBrayer), who gleefully strolls in with his gold hammer to repair Ralph’s damage. When the building is fixed, Felix, Jr. gets a medal and parties with the building residents while Ralph ends up in the mud before going to bed in the garbage dump next door.
Poor Ralph; this loveable oaf is such a lumbering presence that when he tries to attend a party in the Penthouse of the building he is programmed to destroy, he literally crashes it just by making a humble entrance. He argues that he too could be a hero and earn a medal. When the top floor resident promises him the penthouse if he can pull it off, Ralph sets out to “game jump,” leaving his own game behind to ride the electrical cord to the power strip, which works as a central hub where characters can enter other games. A stand-out scene has Ralph attending a support group with other arcade baddies like the ghosts from Pac-Man and Bowser from the Mario Bros. games. They even have a bad-guy proclamation that asserts “not being good isn’t so bad.”
Ralph enters a shooting game dubbed “Hero’s Duty” that features a squadron of massive soldiers led by Calhoun (Jane Lynch). Ralph laments the violent nature of the game, but is able to acquire his medal in possibly the most valiant way possible. His journey also leads him to “Sugar Rush,” a game which blends classic Kart racing with a landscape of endless sweets. Here, Ralph meets a game “glitch” named Vanellope von Schweetz, voiced by a surprisingly endearing Sarah Silverman. Ralph and Vanellope must team up to stop a series of events that could possibly lead to both their games being unplugged, further complicated by King Candy (Alan Tudyk), who may be harboring secrets about more than just one arcade game.
This probably sounds like a movie intended for a very specific crowd; but “Wreck-It Ralph” covers so much creative ground that it cuts a swathe of appeal across the entire audience. This is likely the best animated feature of the year, with its brilliant casting and uplifting messages. At its heart, “‘Wreck-It Ralph” is a story about acceptance and embracing the obscurity of our own talents. In a time when tragic bullying stories are a daily occurrence, here is a feature with a vital message for all ages. Anyone with a passing recollection of arcade games will be laughing out loud and there are enough contemporary gags peppered throughout to keep adults entertained too. Disney might be swallowing up every franchise property they can get their hands on, but when they consistently put them to good use by combining them into a fun feature like this, who can blame them?
Four stars out of four.