It would be moderately easy to sum this up as “Toy Story with video game characters instead of toys.” Or “Monsters, Inc. with video game characters instead of monsters.” Maybe even “The Incredibles, but with video game characters instead of superheroes.” But all of these sound far too dismissive for Wreck-It Ralph, which is an endearing and rather ingeniously constructed adventure. It’s always a treat to see a movie which trusts its audience enough to tease them with exposition and not just throw it right out from the get-go. It makes the payoffs less obvious and more satisfying.
We do still get a little opening voice-over from the eponymous Ralph (John C. Reilly), who explains his history as the Donkey Kong-esque villain of a classic early 80s 8-bit arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr. His job, lo these past 30 years, has been to smash the windows and walls of a high-rise apartment building, in order that the heroic Felix (Jack McBrayer) may leap up the facade repairing the damage with his magic hammer. The tenants, unsurprisingly, despise him and shun him as an uncivilized brute. At night, when the arcade closes, he leaves his game to commiserate with other baddies (including such familiar faces–to some–as Bowser, Dr. Robotnik, and a Pac-man ghost) at an AA-style support group, where he confesses his desire to stop being the villain and become a good guy for a change.
His quest takes him through the wires to the newest, flashiest game in the arcade, Hero’s Duty (don’t trouble yourself with any “duty” jokes, the writers are way ahead of you), a space marine shooter led by tough-as-nails Calhoun (a perfectly cast Jane Lynch). From there he goes on to Sugar Rush, a Candyland-inspired racing game, where he meets Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), his equally misfit foil. Sugar Rush ends up being the dominant setting for Wreck-It Ralph, which makes enough sense for the narrative, I suppose, but I’d have liked a little more variety in the environs–maybe someplace where just looking at the trees won’t make my teeth hurt?
Nevertheless, it’s still a heck of a fun ride, packed with references and characters from every era of gaming. The story does follow the essential Pixar framework (which is to say, your basic Joseph Campbell journey), but the various elements are introduced and paid off with unusual panache here. For instance, throughout the first two acts, many references are made to a phenomenon known as “going Turbo.” By the time the story behind this phrase was finally told, I was genuinely curious to hear about it. Not many movies get me that invested in their mythology.
P.S. Make sure you don’t miss Paperman, the short film (included on the disc) which played in front of Wreck-It Ralph in the theatres. It recently won the Oscar for Best Animated Short, and deservedly so. – [DVD] [Blu-Ray]
DVD Release Date: 3/5/13