Wreck-It Ralph is not only the best animated film of the year, it's the best video game movie ever made. Filled with wit, heart and nods to games ranging from Q*Bert to Gears of War, it is a movie for gamers by gamers, but the story and execution are so brilliant you don't need to be a game fan to enjoy it.
It's no wonder that many people have mistaken Wreck-It Ralph for a Pixar effort. Disney Animation has done an amazing job making sure solid storytelling is at the foundation of this film. Sure, there are nods to Street Fighter and Sonic and Mario Kart aplenty, but everything is tethered to a simple but fulfilling narrative, and that makes all the difference.
In the world of Wreck-It Ralph, characters in video games have a life outside of their games; when the lights in the arcade turn off, they pack up and trudge
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home, rubbing elbows with the likes of Zangief, Pac-Man and Bowser on the train. Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the villainous star of the game Fix-It Felix. Jr., and serves as a Donkey King-style character whose sole gameplay goal is to destroy a building (shades of Rampage) before the do-gooder Fix-It Felix (voiced by 30 Rock's Jack McBrayer) can repair the damage. Ralph's catchphrase "I'm gonna wreck it!" echoes in arcades throughout the land.
Problem is; Ralph's a really nice guy. After decades of being a villain, he just wants to do something good. He wants people to love him; he wants to be included. He goes to a support group for video game villains where ne'er-do-wells like Dr. Eggman and Kano try to make sense of being bad in a world that rewards the good. The support group is where a lot of the video game character cameos come in. The film is smart and doesn't populate the proceedings with too many gaming in-jokes, but there are a few peppered in here to good effect.
The flip side of the baddie support group is personified by Felix, the star of the game he and Ralph inhabit. The two are acquaintances outside of work, but since Ralph carries the stigma of being a "bad guy," they don't hang out. There is no place for Ralph in the 8-bit Mayberry of Niceland, so he lives in the dump that overlooks the game's building and bemoans his status as a universally-reviled villain.
There is a beautiful scene early in the movie where Ralph crashes a party of NPCs celebrating the anniversary of the game. The stilted social interaction between the 8-bit building dwellers and their constant villain is priceless. Ralph just wants to be included in the festivities, but ends up scaring the Nicelanders and, you guessed it, wrecking everything. So the next day, he doesn't show up to work, and instead goes on a quest to prove he's good and, in super-obvious video game fashion, earn a medal to prove his worth.
To do so, Ralph endeavors to go inside the realm of Hero's Duty, whose name invokes the obvious Call of Duty, but actually looks much more like a mix of Gears of War and Starship Troopers. Ralph is woefully out of his depth, and this fact is hammered home repeatedly by the hard-barking Sergeant Calhoun (voiced by the amazing Jane Lynch), whose colorful palate of insults is a highlight of the movie. The world of Hero's Duty is a pitch-perfect take on a bleak shooter realm, and the action in this sequence is quite well-staged, but the movie doesn't stay there.
Instead, it pitches Ralph off to the sugar-dusted, candy-roped world of Sugar Rush, which looks like a combo of Candy Land and Mario Kart. It's here the movie spends the bulk of its time. The land of Sugar Rush looks like Rainbow Road on an 8-ball of Pixie Stick dust, and is home to some cloyingly cute visuals, super-obnoxious cart racers (imagine the Mean Girls as Power Puff Girls), and the achingly funny King Candy (voiced by Firefly alum Alan Tudyk). The movie's one and only flaw is that it spends too much time in this land. The film is so engaging and inventive that I wanted more and different takes on characters, genres and video game tropes. But that is stuff for sequels, and I imagine Ralph will be getting one of those.
It's in Candy Land that Ralph meets the precocious but winning kart racer Vannelope (played by comic Sarah Silverman), a misfit in her own right. She's an outsider due to the fact that she "glitches" out and, like Ralph, strives to overcome her perceived imperfection the whole movie. The two form a tenuous partnership that grows into respect and friendship as the movie progresses. Their dynamic is the backbone of the film, and their arc from mistrusting loners to friends who share a tender bond is quite touching.
The cast is excellent and well-balanced: no one actor steals the spotlight. John C. Reilly's portrayal of Ralph is heartfelt and subtle; it's impossible not to pull for Ralph. Sarah Silverman shines as Vannelope, a character who comes on strong but melts your heart in the end. The support from Jane Lynch and Alan Tudyk is phenomenal. Lynch delivers her tough-as-nails military boilerplate with gusto, winking heavily at the ham-handed dialogue present in many shooters. Tudyk plays King Candy as a goofy, almost maniacal parody of the Mad Hatter, and it just works.
Wreck-It Ralph is beautifully-rendered. From the lush, imaginative worlds to the blistering action sequences, this film is technical perfection, and the latest evidence that Disney Animation is returning to its former glory and then some. But technical wizardry is nothing without heart, and Wreck-It Ralph never loses site of its main purpose: to entertain and teach us something about ourselves.
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Ultimately, Wreck-It Ralph is a movie about folks finding their place in the world, and being comfortable in their own skin, which is a great parable for our times, and a well-executed one, to boot. Video game fans, get to the theater as soon as humanly possible. Everyone else... do the same! Wreck-It Ralph is worth every single quarter you'll sink into it.