Review | <i>Wreck-It Ralph</i>

Disney has once again delivered with the wildly entertaining Wreck-It Ralph, a Pixar-influenced CG-animated film that packs an emotional punch and an astonishingly sophisticated message about what it means to be “good” and “bad.”

Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the villain of Fix-It Felix Jr., an 8-bit arcade video game in which every day he smashes the windows of the Niceland apartment building only to have rosy-cheeked hero Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer) restore them under the control of real-world players.

Not content with his role, Ralph wants to be the good guy and win a medal, confusing the denizens of his own game as well as his fellow arcade antagonists at the Bad Guy Anonymous meetings. Deciding to take matters into his own hands, Ralph hitches a ride into two other games, the space marine first-person shooter Hero’s Duty and the candy-infused racing game Sugar Rush, in an attempt to win that medal. Unfortunately, Ralph’s plans backfire as his actions bring the game world to the brink of destruction and threaten his newfound friendship with glitchy Sugar Rush misfit Vanellope (Sarah Silverman).

The plot of Wreck-It Ralph plays like something out of the Pixar handbook, and that’s a credit to John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. The thoughtfully realized world begins with the voice actors, who inhabit roles tailor-made for their individual talents. Reilly is as dependable as always playing the loveable loser, a role he’s perfected over the past decade with movies like Chicago and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Jane Lynch is recognizable as a tough-as-nails authority figure, this time as Hero’s Duty Sergeant Calhoun rather than Glee’s Sue Sylvester. McBrayer is similarly comfortable in the role of the film’s wide-eyed innocent, a persona he honed on 30 Rock, and he nails Fix-It Felix’s mix of old-school charm, naïveté and weird Southern sayings.

By far the most enjoyable performance comes from Silverman’s Vanellope, a character whose G-rated potty mouth is basically a kid-friendly version of the comedian’s stand-up routine. Much like what happened to my generation with Bob Saget, I look forward to watching a new generation of kids grow up loving Silverman based on this film, only to suffer acute shock the first time they hear her real shtick as adults.

The intense attention to detail in director Rich Moore’s (The Simpsons) feature debut also enlivens the animation. The camera switches continually between 8-bit and three-dimensional animation as the movie flips back and forth from the perspective of the arcade characters (three-dimensional CG animation) to the point of view of the real-world players (seeing 8-bit characters on a flat screen). But what’s truly remarkable is how the animators pinned down the exact way each video-game character moves depending on what game he or she comes from. The three-dimensional Nicelanders bob up and down in jerky motions identical to their 8-bit movements. Q-Bert, Pac-Man and the other licensed video game characters cycle through their iconic poses and gestures. Even Ralph’s more fluid animation throws in subtle references to Donkey Kong with his signature ground-pounding move.

The film’s most impressive feat, however, is in the nuanced message about being good versus being bad. Ralph is a bad guy, but he’s not a bad guy, as the characters at Bad-Anon are so fond of saying, and this subtle distinction is what drives the movie. Ralph is likeable and sympathetic; you feel for him when he’s excluded from the Nicelander’s anniversary party or when he tries to awkwardly insert himself where he’s clearly not wanted. Yet Ralph also can’t grasp that there’s more to being a good guy than having a medal, or that there might be consequences for his actions.

It’s watching his selfishness war with his deep-seated desire to be accepted that makes Ralph so fascinating. Wreck-It Ralph presents a character struggling with more than the concept of being good -- he’s slowly learning there’s a wider world outside of his feelings and wants as well, much like kids themselves discover. His frustration at his pre-programmed world craftily mirrors the frustrations his young audience goes through, dealing with a grown-up world full of rules just as strict as Ralph’s. When Ralph loses his cool he’s not a bad guy enacting some evil scheme, he’s a kid throwing a temper tantrum, unable to see that his snit is only going to make things worse. And when the film’s true bad guy shows up (the Final Boss, if you will), the film once again quietly explores the gray areas of bad versus good to underline the differences between Ralph’s misguided desires and the Boss’ selfish wants.

Wreck-It Ralph professes to be about an arcade-game character striking out on his own, but what audiences actually get is a guide to growing up from a child’s perspective, with all the worries and joys that go along with it. A delightful and insightful film, Wreck-It Ralph is an absolute winner, sure to enchant you, your kids and your inner-child.

Wreck-It Ralph opens Friday nationwide.

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