It must be tough as a video-game bad guy. You work hard throwing barrels at some demented little plumber, honing your pounding your opponents with harsh street fighting moves, or ganging up with your buddies on a dot-gobbling yellow freak , only to see the other guys get all the glory. How come Pac-Man gets his own cereal while those hapless ghosts are just marshmallows? Why doesn’t Donkey Kong or Zangief merit a shitty Bob Hoskins movie with their name on it? It’s rough, I tells ya.
That’s the dilemma faced by Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), underappreciated villain of the 80s arcade staple Fix-it Felix Jr. and star of Disney’s marvelous new animated feature (which does, I’m happy to say, have his name on it). It ports the basic premise of Toy Story over to the video game world, with irresistible results. Wreck-It Ralph understands the nostalgia of the old arcade, as well as the premium thrills of more modern video games, and crafts a terrifically entertaining narrative encompassing them both. Its high-concept foundation actually enables the solid characterization, coupled with a clever script and beautiful visuals that seamlessly merge into a terrific story.
Ralph lives in an off-ramp fun center called Litwack’s. Every night, when the lights go out, the characters on the screen take on a life of their own: commiserating with each other like old pals and even jumping from game to game courtesy of the arcade’s surge protector. Ralph’s been doing his thing for thirty years – throwing bricks at heroic repairman Felix who darts around trying to fix the building Ralph has destroyed. It’s a good gig, but the game’s other residents don’t think much of his contributions. Frustrated and determined to prove he can be a “good guy,” he starts jumping from game to game to find a means of redemption.
First stop? Hard-core FPS Hero’s Duty, where soldiers battle their way through a bug-infested landscape en route to the “medal of heroes” at the end of the line. Then a detour into the racer game Sugar Rush, a sort of candy-colored variant on Mario Cart whose every corner can send you into a diabetic coma. There, he finds something he never had before: a friend. Vanellope von Schweetz (voiced by Sarah Silverman) livers on the fringes as a “glitch,” a programmed driver abandoned in the design stage, but still kicking around the game’s code. Together, they have to defend the arcade against a growing unseen threat, as well as figuring out what being a good guy really means.
It sounds pretty boiler-plate and it a lot of ways it is. But director Rich Moore invests it with plenty wit and heart to rise above the Hero’s Journey basics. Reilly makes an ideal fit for Ralph, a misunderstood tough guy who just wants people to appreciate him. Silverman is similarly well-matched for her mischievous cart racer – finding the right side of the impish/annoying line and never straying. Add to them Jack McBrayer (who fits Felix like a glove), Jane Lynch (playing Ellen Ripley’s tougher blonder clone) and Alan Tudyk (as the scheming king of Sugar Rush), and the voice cast solidly places us in the characters’ corner.
Director Rich Moore compliments them with one of the more inventive animation universes we’ve seen. Wreck-It Ralph isn’t a gaming movie so much as a movie about gaming: from the early days of Pong all the way up to the latest Medal of Honor. The arcade environment blends actual video games with fictitious ones that nonetheless feel like we’ve actually played them. Figures such as Sonic the Hedgehog and M. Bison use the actual voice actors from the game, while the sounds and images of the arcade itself are all spot-on. To that, the film adds all-new material that remains virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Ralph’s home reflects the 8-bit pixels of the early 80s, while Sugar Rush (where most of the film takes place) features a slight anime tone and Hero’s Duty plays like a darker, scarier version of Halo. Their veracity – and the stunning amount of detail that goes into them – sells the concept almost sight unseen. We buy into it because it feels right, pure and simple.
But none of that means anything if the story doesn’t click, and the journey here is still more important than all those marvelous little details. The movie knows and loves gaming culture, but never uses that as an excuse to let the narrative slip. As a result, the film feels very open and welcoming to non-gamers as well as old pros. Ralph quickly earns our sympathies as a loveable outcast, and his burgeoning sibling relationship with Vanellope gives us something other than the traditional romance to focus on. We believe in them and want them to succeed, even if we don’t catch all the throwaway jokes.
In that sense, Wreck-It Ralph aptly reflects the Pixar ethos, ported over to Disney with John Lassetter and apparently doing wonders for their creativity. A few short years ago, we wondered if the company would ever regain its status as the king of the animation cage. With movies as good as this one, its supremacy is assured. “Level up “takes on a whole new meaning here: Wreck-It Ralph may just be the best animated feature of the year.