Thursday, November 1, 2012
Review: "Wreck-It Ralph"
A bouncy, boingy ball of candy-colored fun, "Wreck-It Ralph" is intended as pure entertainment for wee boys and girls. It's one of those animated movies that only really works on a single level, lacking the layers and cleverness of more ambitious flicks. But it's bound to keep the kids from squirming in their seats, and I bet most adults will find it a hoot to boot.
I took my 2-year-old along to the preview screening -- a first for both of us -- and he clapped and cheered, and made the sign for "more" after the end credits rolled. That's as good an endorsement as you'll get anywhere.
The script, by Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnson, manages to take something that's very familiar, video games, and put an original-ish spin on it. The idea is that the characters we see inside the arcade games are actually self-aware beings who perform for the person who's put a coin in their slot, but after closing time they have their own thoughts and lives.
It's the same basic premise as "Toy Story" -- what our playthings do when we're not around.
It's often been said that there's never been a decent movie based on a video game. "Ralph" trashes that notion ... though I should note that it creates a new fictional game as the centerpiece rather than using an existing game as its jumping-off point. But, then again, via the inevitable Disney merchandising tie-ins, an actual video game based on the movie is also coming out. So I'm not sure if this movie represents a sellout or a sell-in.
Wreck-It Ralph is a 9-foot-tall ox with a shock of red hair and torso and arms thick as redwoods. He sort of resembles a steroid monster version of John C. Reilly, which is appropriate since he provides the voice. It's a subtle vocal performance, letting Ralph seem both tough and tender.
Ralph has been the villain of a video game called "Fix-It Felix Jr." for the past 30 years. It's sort of a combination of Donkey Kong and Rampage, in which Ralph smashes up an apartment high-rise and sprightly Felix (Jack McBrayer) repairs the damage with his magic hammer. In the end the residents of the building pitch Ralph off the roof.
He doesn't get treated much better when they're off duty. Ralph lives in the junk pile next door, while his diminutive neighbors party it up in the penthouse. He's sick of being the bad guy -- even attending "Bad-anon," a support group for fellow video game heavies.
How do they get together? It turns out the characters can travel to and from each others' games via the Central Station -- aka the massive surge protector they're all plugged into. This way avatars from newer games can interact with older icons like Pac-Man and Qbert.
It raises some metaphysical questions, like if the characters in home game consoles are also sentient. Somehow I get the impression, though, that this state of bliss exists only in this one particular arcade.
Fed up with his squalid existence, Ralph determines to travel into another game and become a hero, hoping that winning a medal will earn him more respect. He chooses Hero's Duty, a generic militaristic first-person shooter in which armored soldiers battle alien bugs that can quickly replicate themselves.
Hot in pursuit is Felix, who hopes to set things right, and Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the crusty star of Hero's Duty. The chase ends up in another game called Sugar Rush, a cutesy racing game in which everything is made out of cookies and candy -- even the go karts the little clique of snotty girl racers drive.
Here Ralph meets Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), who's an outcast in her own game because of her "pixlexia" -- a tendency to glitch out at inopportune times. The ruler of this land, the goofy but slightly despotic King Candy (Alan Tudyk), refuses to let Vanellope race because the human player might think the game is broken. This would lead to being slapped with a dreaded "Out of Order" sign, the equivalent of a death sentence in this world.
Director Rich Moore, a first-time feature filmmaker, has a good grasp of how to stage action scenes and balance them with quieter moments about friendship and doing the right thing even when you won't get credit for it. It never gets too deep or ooey-gooey emotional, which is a smart move for this material.
"Wreck-It Ralph" may not go down as one of the all-time great animated movies, but it's worth your quarters -- you'll need about 40 at today's ticket prices.
The film is preceded by "Paperman," a 6-minute animated short that's a gorgeous black-and-white, wordless depiction of love and happenstance in the big city.
3 stars out of four