Game On: 'Wreck-It Ralph'

What happens when a video game bad guy doesn’t want to be the bad guy any more? As it turns out, the result is something that’s imaginative, loads of fun, and surprisingly touching.

Wreck-It Ralph

Director: Rich Moore
Cast: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch
Distributor: Buena Vista
Rated: PG
Release date: 2013-03-05

Up. Up. Down. Down. Left. Right. Left. Right. B. A.

Whether that sequence means something to you or not, you’ll enjoy Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, which is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. But if you’re a video game junkie familiar with the industry’s famed Konami Code, which is referenced in the movie, you’ll especially enjoy the nostalgia that the animated film brings.

At its core, Wreck-It Ralph has a brilliant premise: an animated movie set in the world of video games, where the likes of Pac-Man, M. Bison and Sonic the Hedgehog could share the screen. The result is admittedly a bit like Toy Story, only with video game avatars instead of tangible playthings. Interestingly enough, Wreck-It Ralph is better, and certainly has more heart, than the past couple of Pixar films.

Wreck-It Ralph was executive-produced by John Lasseter, the genius behind Toy Story, so, you’re right to expect an immersive tale that’s rich with detail and an all-encompassing set of imaginative characters.

The movie’s title character, Ralph (played by John C. Reilly), is an 8-bit baddie in a '80s arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr. Ralph’s sole task is to wreak havoc on buildings while being foiled by the game’s likeable hero, Felix. During the 30th anniversary of Fix-It Felix Jr., Ralph isn’t even invited to his game’s celebration party, despite being one of the game’s two vital characters. Understandably, Ralph is tired of being shunned for faithfully doing his demolition job as the bad guy; he wants to be a beloved hero instead. Who could blame him? The storyline begins with this deceptively simple premise that becomes surprisingly intricate with the introduction of other arcade games and characters.

Early on, Ralph, the big lug, decides the only way to win some affection is to earn a medal from another game, but when he leaves his own game, his actions have serious consequences.

The film’s action occurs almost entirely inside the worlds of several arcade-style video games (both retro and modern). As it turns out, the various games are tied together via Game Central Station which allows game characters to exit their arcade consoles and move about freely, interacting with one another. This concept provides an inventive reason for the settings, rules and characters to reinvent themselves.

The Fix-It Felix Jr. game can't function without someone around to wreck things, so the arcade owner is about to pull the plug. That leaves the goody-two-shoes Felix (30 Rock’s winsome Jack McBrayer) to find Ralph and repair the damage. Along the way, Felix meets the heroine of the violent Hero’s Duty, the hilariously tough-as-nails yet voluptuous Sgt. Calhoun (Glee’s forceful Jane Lynch). Meanwhile, Ralph accidentally ends up in the saturated land of the Wonka-like, candy-coated racing gameSugar Rush where he meets the sharp-tongued and scrappy little misfit Vanellope von Schweetz (an especially playful Sarah Silverman). Initially, Ralph sees her as a pest, but as the story plunges deeper, they develop an endearing father/daughter-type of friendship as they both try to right wrongs and earn some much needed adoration.

Indeed, the plot does borrow strong themes from the incredible Toy Story 2 , particularly the fear of being abandoned, the importance of believing in yourself, and the universal need to feel appreciated. Yet, there's not a preachy or heavy-handed moment in it.

Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston’s brilliantly conceived screenplay works on many levels, with strong character development, wit, and a springing pacing. More than most films, the story and art design of "Wreck-It Ralph" permit innumerable sets, color schemes, costumes, and challenges, which, in turn, give the animated film unflagging uniqueness.

While casting celebrities typically returns a mixed bag of quality in feature animation, the voice acting is stellar across the board in this Disney flick. In particular, the underrated Reilly is spot-on as the voice of the downcast brute with a heart of gold. His performance helps Ralph remain loveable when he’s grumbling, harsh, and/or misguided. What’s surprising though is that Reilly, Silverman, Lynch and McBrayer aren’t given as many opportunities as you’d expect to provide hearty belly laughs. Sure, they’re still quite amusing but mostly they bring an unexpected amount of depth and emotional resonance to the film. Meanwhile, Alan Tudyk has plenty of fun gleefully mimicking the giggly, wobbly voices of Charles Nelson Reilly and Ed Wynn as Sugar Rush’s despicable King Candy.

As an added bonus, Wreck-It Ralph is even clever enough to comment on how video games have changed over the decades. When Ralph sneaks into the action-packed Hero’s Duty, where a laser-toting battalion fights violent bugs in a dystopian setting, he’s can’t handle it. He yells, “When did video games get so violent?”

The film marks the feature-length debut for director Rich Moore, a TV animation veteran who is best known for his work on episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama. Despite the jump to computer-animation and the movie’s 101-minute runtime, Moore excels triumphantly with punchy storytelling and joyful animation, easily finding his place among the finest directors of animation working today.

His film casts a wide net with witty dialogue, candy-bright colors, genuine emotion, full-throttle action pieces, and, yes, even poop jokes. (For example, when Ralph first meets Vanellope, she remarks, “I bet you really gotta watch where you step in a game called 'Hero's Duty'!”)

Plus, it’s an ocular rollercoaster that seamlessly juggles 8-bit graphics with the high definition gleam of contemporary first-person shooters. Wreck-It Ralph could visually delight anyone who ever enjoyed a video game.

Hidden within are hints of a love letter to gamers young and old. There are references to Tomb Raider and clear parallels to Halo. Retro gamers will especially get a kick of the countless cameos and references. Sonic, Frogger, Peter Pepper from BurgerTime, the bartender from Tapper, numerous characters from Street Fighter II and even the paddles from Pong, among many others, make appearances. While there are perhaps too many Q-Bert-related jokes, it’s still a bizarre dream come true. What’s especially memorable is the opening scene where we meet Ralph in a villain support group (“Bad-Anon”) made up of icons like Clyde the ghost from Pac-Man, Bowser from the Mario series, Doctor Eggman from the Sonic series, and both M. Bison and Zangief from from Street Fighter II.

All in all, Wreck-It Ralph is the most inventive and entertaining family movie in recent memory. It’s among the rare pieces of feature-length animation that’s equally enjoyable for adults and children.

While the eye-popping action, whimsical colors and swift pace are sure to bring a rush of excitement to the film’s youngest viewers, the real success of the film is its emotional core and the relationship between the two misfits. In other words, no Konami Code is needed to unlock Wreck-It Ralph’s appeal.

The most wonderful extra included in the Blu-ray’s special features has hardly anything to do with Wreck-It Ralph; it’s the astounding, Oscar-winning animated short film Paperman. The quirky love story of Paperman appeared before Wreck-It Ralph in theaters and it packs a sentimental starry-eyed wallop. Magnificently animated in a unique mix of computer and hand-drawn animation and packed with beauty, comedy, and romance, it’s unforgettable six-minute piece of animation that will warrant more repeated viewings than the feature film itself.

Aside from the glorious Paperman, in the special features, there’s a behind-the-scenes Wreck-It Ralph, featurette, some interesting deleted/alternate scenes, and a few moderately clever video game commercials for the film’s original games like Fix-It Felix Jr. There’s also an unconventional featurette hosted by The Nerdist’s Chris Hardwick where his geek credibility and nerdy charisma shine as you’re guided through some of the video game-related Easter eggs in the film.

As far as the extras go, the real winner though is easily the moving Paperman. As if watching Wreck-It Ralph wouldn't make you enough of a wreck on its own.

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