Detractors of “Wreck-It Ralph” will undoubtedly dwell on the shameless transparency of the Walt Disney Company’s attempt to expand the size of their potential audience by melding a classic arcade game-based premise that evokes nostalgia in 20- and 30-somethings with their usual family-oriented formula. But this isn’t a fair point of criticism unless one presumes that meaningful art cannot be born from financial aspirations — in which case, all Hollywood films would have to be classified as trash. “Wreck-It Ralph” may exploit older viewers’ memories of joysticks, stacks of quarters, and 1980s characters to get them in the door, but its independent visual and narrative accomplishments are myriad.
Much of the effectiveness of “Wreck-It Ralph” lies in director Rich Moore and writers Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnson’s creation of a rich world for the characters to inhabit. Sure, the film’s basic idea is ripped straight from “Toy Story,” with anthropomorphized arcade game characters instead of toys, but the filmmakers’ execution of the concept is unique in design. Gameplay is only the day-job of the characters; they carry out personal lives at night, full of socialization and rituals. They are able to travel to other games via the power cords, with the arcade’s surge protector acting as a sort of Grand Central Station. This microcosmic, alternate universe is the perfect representation of the appeal of video games as an escape from the real-word. And it’s not only a great opportunity for action-adventure within the games, but comedy, as the ‘80s and ‘90s games are far less three-dimensional than their newer counterparts.
The plot is a vehicle for simple morals like practicing tolerance for others and not judging a book by its cover, as one would expect of a Disney film, but the characters are so likable that they mask the material’s innate preachiness. The title protagonist (voiced by John C. Reilly) has the most thankless job in the arcade game world: he’s a villain, programmed to destroy buildings so that the hero of his game, Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer), can save the day by rebuilding them. Even though Ralph is a jovial, well-intentioned guy off-the-clock, nobody else in the game has ever been willing to befriend him due to his antagonistic profession. After 30 years and too many “Bad-Anon” meetings, during which he commiserates with the likes of fellow villains like Clyde of “Pacman” and Bowser of “Super Mario,” Ralph decides that he must prove himself to be a good guy by earning a medal in the neighboring games “Hero’s Duty” and “Sugar Rush.”
Ralph’s quest to earn the acceptance of others is engaging thanks to the combination of his jolly-giant design–an inspired rendering of a character who was little more than a few dozen pixels when he first appeared in 1982–and Reilly’s sympathetic voice-work, which overflows with pathos but is never intolerably manipulative. Only the most cynical of viewers won’t love Ralph. In the second half of the film, he is paired with “Sugar Rush” character Vanellope, who’s made similarly likable by voice-actress Sarah Silverman and the neat touch that she suffers from a programming glitch. It should be noted, too, that Ralph’s fellow “Fix-It Felix Jr.” cast-members are hardly unlikable antagonists; they just don’t have the reasoning skills to accept Ralph as a good guy at heart. Jack McBrayer’s characterization of Fix-It Felix himself is especially amusing in that the actor treats Felix’s programming to repair anything that’s broken as a sort of addiction, an urge he cannot overcome even when it harms him (I’ll spare you spoilers).
The icing on the cake is the gorgeous computer animation, which turns two-dimensional subjects and worlds into fully three-dimensional ones. The spirits of the original arcade games are captured, but their aesthetics are transformed into modern visions that today’s kids will be able to connect with. In fact, “Wreck-It Ralph” is one of the few animated films in which contemporary 3-D effects actually enhance the experience, lending especial definition to shots that juxtapose the inside action of a game against the outside arcade. The dark 3-D glasses don’t rob the visuals of their color, either, because the animators use pastel-like tones that don’t require a lot of vibrancy to maintain their boldness. Watching the film, I was reminded of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” in that it similarly pays tribute to what was once cutting-edge technology with what is today cutting-edge technology. That’s not to say that “Wreck-It Ralph” is anywhere near as emotionally complex or visually daring as the Scorsese film, but it sure is a good time, whether you’re a kid, a 28-year-old who once spent many an afternoon at the arcade, or just someone who appreciates a quality animated entertainment.