One need not be a huge gamer to enjoy the deliriously entertaining Wreck-It Ralph, directed by Rich Moore. This Disney movie proves that evergreen themes like family, friendship and self-esteem can win audiences over in any genre.
Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the oversized villain of the ‘80s-born video game “Fix-It Felix Jr.” He bounds around an apartment building, smashing windows and willows, Hulk-style, until the goody-goody title character of the game (voiced by Jack McBrayer) comes in and cleans up all the messes, restoring tenants’ apartments to pristine condition. But even though having a villain is a necessary part of keeping the game going, everyone else in the video game abhors Ralph. Tired of being persona non grata, Ralph embarks on a mission to win an award in another game and therefore prove he can be a hero.
How can this be done, you might ask? One of the more ingenious visions in Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston’s screenplay is the creation of “Game Central Station,” a depot in which characters from all active video games in an arcade can mix and mingle, shuttling through power cords like subways after arcade hours. It’s a clever concept, as is an early scene at an AA-like meeting for bemoaning arcade game baddies. And another one of the joys to be found in Moore’s Disney film is just how visually striking it is. Bright colors abound, especially when events land Ralph in another game entitled “Sugar Rush” (think “Candy Land” meets “Speed Racer”). It’s there that he meets the young rapscallion Vanellope von Schweetz (voiced by Sarah Silverman), a young girl serving an outcast sentence because she’s a glitch – ie, a poorly coded character. (Remember the line “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way” in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? This is the next level.)
Vanellope and Ralph establish the sweetest surrogate parent-child rapport since Monsters, Inc. as both try to build up the other’s ego in time for a climactic race. Meanwhile, King Candy (Alan Tudyk, doing the best VO in the bunch) tries to prevent Vanellope from participating – at the same time, Felix teams up with a Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a drill sergeant from another game, “Hero’s Duty,” to bring Ralph back to “Felix” beforethe whole game is shut down (when characters exit their games during the day, the arcade deems them out of order, thus putting them on the slab).
Ralph gets a lot of mileage early on with its title character’s sympathetic plight and the nostalgic excitement of merging real-life and fictional video game characters, but eventually, it stalls out on the clever. Once Ralph lands in “Sugar Rush,” one wants him to keep game-hopping to see what other locales Lee and Johnston can devise. The fact that he sticks around “Sugar Rush” disappoints us; we want to see a Toys ‘R’ Us-level of bright worlds on display. And the film has pretty much exhausted its creative wheelhouse by the time we reach the climactic race. But its message of self-affirmation cannot be overlooked. And from start to finish, the ride is delicious.