Wreck-It Ralph (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, PG)

film wreck-it-ralph_75Wreck-It Ralph is some of the purest fun I’ve had in the movie theater this year.

 

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Wreck-It Ralph is one of those movies that is very easy to compare to that which came before it, but it’s so much fun that it’s easy to forgive its derivative nature. Sure, it’s sometimes so much like Toy Story that it could almost be sued for plagiarism, if John Lasseter weren’t also an executive producer on this film. Yes, the aesthetic here has been done before and much better in the live-action Scott Pilgrim vs. the World a few years back. I’ll even concede that this movie probably got the green light based on the success of the videogame franchise Kingdom Hearts, another Disney crossover into pre-established videogame land. But put all that aside: Wreck-It Ralph is some of the purest fun I’ve had in the movie theater so far this year, and its success is a reminder why genre films and sequels and endless, endless imitations of past successes exist in the first place: When you find a formula that works, you can get a lot of mileage out of it.

As hinted above, the most obvious touchstones here are the Toy Story movies, especially the first one. Where that movie was about what your toys do when you’re not paying attention, Wreck-It Ralph is about what your videogame characters do when you’re not playing their game. Like Toy Story, the main good guys and bad guys were all created specifically for this movie, but the background characters are often known quantities that are fun to reference. Our main hero is the titular Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), who is the bad guy in an early-’80s-style arcade game, opposite the hero Fix-It Felix (30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer, who gets more grating as the years go on but is just fine here). Think of the game as a sort of cross between Donkey Kong and Rampage.

Ralph gets tired of being the bad guy, and while Felix himself is at least somewhat sympathetic to his plight, none of the other residents of the building Ralph continually wrecks are. Growing weary of always having to be the bad guy Ralph “goes Turbo” and searches for greener pastures in other videogames, which are all linked via the circuitry in the arcade where these machines all reside. “Going Turbo” is a reference to a notorious case of a popular character in a popular game jumping ship and going to a different game when his popularity began to wane, thus rendering both his old game and the game he goes to out of order. That is to say, it’s in everybody in the videogame world’s best interest if Ralph doesn’t do what he plans to, but before they can stop him, he manages to tour many other popular videogame styles over the ages, most notably a first-person shooter and a Mario Kart-style racing game, if Mario Kart took place in Candyland.

The racing game, Sugar Rush, is the most fully realized world of the movie. There are tons of interesting little touches here; to give my favorite example, the cops in Sugar Rush are actually literally donuts, but donuts dressed as cops, but no broad winking gesture is there to point this cleverness out to you. In Sugar Rush, Ralph meets the horribly-named Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), the requisite little-girl entry point that so many Disney movies have, and he soon learns that Vanellope is a glitch—i.e., she’s a playable character under certain circumstances, but wasn’t meant to be. This opens up the film for the usual Disneyfied and transparent symbolism for oppression (the other characters frown on Vanellope strictly because she’s a glitch), writ in the most unspecific terms possible, but Van is a likeable enough character that that whole thing never gets too cumbersome.

In fact, this is one of those movies whose success starts working against it. You might find yourself pleased to see Sonic, but then get distracted by wondering why Mario doesn’t make an appearance. (I’ve read that Disney didn’t want to pay the exorbitant rights for them.) Or you’ll be amused by the Bad Guys Anonymous-type meeting Ralph goes to, populated by all of your favorite old videogame bad guys, but then get to wondering if Zangief really was a bad guy, especially when M. Bison is also present at the meeting. Still, if the best criticism you can come up with is that type of nitpicky stuff, you’re probably dealing with a pretty good movie.

I wrote in my original review of Avatar that it was a movie that felt not like a videogame, but a commercial for a videogame. Wreck-It Ralph feels like both a videogame and a commercial for a videogame all at once, and unlike Avatar, in this case that’s a very good thing. If the game’s half as good as the movie, it’ll be a whole lot of fun. | Pete Timmermann

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