Starring: voices of John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch
Directed by: Rich Moore (debut)
Written by: Jennifer Lee (debut) and Phil Johnston (“Cedar Rapids”)
For better or worse, Walt Disney Animation Studios with always be compared to its wildly-successful upstart corporate sibling, Pixar. Ever since the latter released “Toy Story” in 1995, Disney Animation had been stuck in a creative funk. High points in the late-’80s and early-’90s like “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” and “The Lion King” gave way to forgettable bombs like “Treasure Planet” and “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” and other titles that stand no chance of being preserved in the sacred Disney Vault. Recent duds by Pixar, however, like “Cars 2” and “Brave” paired with the breezy success of Disney’s “Tangled” signaled a return to form for the venerable animation studio. And with their latest release, “Wreck-It Ralph,” its clear Disney has been looking over Pixar’s shoulder, taking notes on how to create kid-pleasing animation filled with enough wit and heart to appeal to adults as well.
“Wreck-It Ralph” takes us into the secret lives of video game characters after the doors of the arcade close. As the villain in the classic video game “Fix-It Felix, Jr.,” the brutish Wreck-It Ralph (perfectly voiced by John C. Reilly), punches out and heads home to the dump just off screen. While it’s Ralph’s job to be the bad guy, defeated time after time by the game’s hero Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer), he’s a good guy at heart, grown weary of being the villain. In order to prove he can be a hero, Ralph “game jumps” and ends up in the first-person shooter “Hero’s Duty” under the command of Sgt. Calhoun (Jane Lynch) in a quest to win a medal. When things go awry, an escape pod sends Ralph, his medal, and a dangerously devastating cy-bug rocketing into the candy-coated racing game “Sugar Rush.” Here, Ralph meets Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) a glitchy 9-year-old racer looking to become part of the game, a feat she can’t accomplish without Ralph’s help.
Directed by “Simpsons” veteran Rich Moore, “Wreck-It Ralph” establishes its retro-geek bonafides from the very first frame: the “Steamboat Willie”-inspired Walt Disney Animation Studios logo rendered in lovingly lo-fi 8-bit graphics reminiscent of the golden age of arcade games. It only gets better from there, from the “Donkey Kong” meets “Rampage” gameplay of “Fix-It Felix Jr.” to the “Bad-Anon” meeting wherein reluctant bad guys like Ralph look for support among like-minded villains like Bowser (of “Super Mario Bros.”), Zangeif (“Street Fighter II”) and Clyde (the orange ghost from “Pac-Man”) that brilliantly takes place in that little ghost box that sits in the middle of the “Pac-Man” game board.
It would be a hollow victory, though, if fond memories were all “Wreck-It Ralph” had going for it. Thankfully the film goes for the high score with a heartfelt, laugh-filled story to match its nostalgia-fueled visual palette. Reilly’s endearing, self-aware voice work on Ralph powers the story forward, while strong performances from Silverman, McBrayer and Lynch prove once and for all that you can still cast big-name celebrities perfectly for their animated roles instead of simply plugging current stars in to whatever roles are available. I’m looking at you, Dreamworks and Fox Animation.
While the cynics in the audience may scoff at the formulaic “find your true self” storyline Ralph embarks on with Vanellope that dominates the second half of the movie, the inclusion of songs from current hit-makers Rhianna and Skrillex, or the romanticism of a thriving arcade still existing in 2012, “Wreck-It Ralph” is delightful and charming enough to keep earning its quarters all the way through to the end.