With Walt Disney Animation Studios’ latest release, they are closer to giving their own Pixar a run for the money. But they haven’t quite hit pay-dirt yet. Clever and inventive, "Wreck-It Ralph" is a fun little ride that is made up of almost non-stop pop-cultural references to video games. While this might not totally appeal to the older set who were far beyond the video game age when they were first introduced, those that grew up in that generation and beyond will get a kick out of it.
Set inside the world of arcade video games, "Wreck-It Ralph" begins in the old-school game called "Fix-It Felix." The game revolves around a Super Mario-type do-gooder who fixes a building destroyed by the "evil" character Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly). When the arcade closes in the evening, the real lives of the video game characters comes to life. They travel along the electrical cords and circuits of the game machines and carry on alternate lives that co-exist between games and inside their own.
But Wreck-It Ralph is considered a villain and he doesn’t get much attention once the players leave the arcades. So he goes to a support group (Bad-Anon) where other video game villains (such as the ghosts from Pac-Man) try to feel better about themselves. What upsets him most is that he is an integral part of his game, yet the other characters within it never give him the time of day. Fix-It Felix gets all the medals and a party, but they forget to invite Ralph. He just wants to get a medal of his own and to stand with all the others as a proud member of the team.
This is when he discovers that if he can get a medal, he could be just as important as the other characters. In fact, one of the extras in his own game says that if Ralph finally wins a medal - something he does not think he can do - he will give him the building’s penthouse! So as he is walking around between games Ralph notices a game called "Hero’s Duty" that awards a medal to the user who finishes the game. He decides to "go turbo" and skip games so he can win the medal and get the respect of his game’s peers. This starts a whole plethora of problems that ends with his getting stuck in a children’s go-kart game called "Sugar Rush."
There he meets a "glitch" named Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). A glitch, you see, is a character that pixels out every so often so that her character looks like an error, or worse, a mistake, so much so that whoever plays the game will think there’s something wrong with it. So while Vanellope has dreams of being a racer in the game (a character the players can choose) if she does get chosen and a player thinks there’s something amiss with the game itself, the game could be unplugged for good. Since glitches can’t leave the game they in, she would essentially "die."
But Vanellope doesn’t think she’s a mistake and wants desperately to play in the races the next day. Wreck-It Ralph just wants his medal - something Vanellope has swiped so she can use it to enter the race. Both have things they want and both will get stuck together in order to get those things.
In the world of Sugar Rush there are a number of characters that interact with our heroes. The nerdy good fella Fix-It Felix, Jr. (Jack Braverman) is joined by the voluptuous Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) who escapes from Hero’s Duty to stop a virus that Ralph has inadvertently leaked into the Sugar Rush game. King Candy (Alan Tudyk) is after his own medal and looks to thwart poor Vanellope’s racing dreams, while Taffyta Muttonfudge (Mindy Kaling) is the Mean Girl of Sugar Rush and the one gal that Vanellope hopes the most to show up.
There are a ton of side-gags, in-jokes, and amusing potty humor to win over Disney audiences of any age. The spin on video games old and new is a lot of fun but only true gamers will get all of the references. There is also a lot of heart in the film that writer Phil Johnston ("Cedar Rapids") and Jennifer Lee have incorporated to make the film actually mean something rather than just being some fun visual jokes. The message - one about not being a "mistake" for being who you are - is an important one, and in this day and age where bullying is a hot-topic, this does the message justice.
Energetically directed by Rich Moore ("The Simpsons"), the movie is fun and colorful and keeps things moving at a brisk pace. Voice work is excellent with Silverman being the stand-out here as the punchy Vanellope. The plot isn’t wholly predictable either, so for a cartoon to keep surprising us, that’s a plus. The one thing that differentiates this Disney Animation film from Pixar is the need to be constantly loud and noisy.
With previous releases like "Mars Needs Moms" and "Meet the Robinsons," there was not a lot of downtime to quiet the action and let us get a breather. Here there are a few quieter key scenes, but many of them involve arguing or yelling, so the assault on our senses continues. "Brave," "Finding Nemo," and "Up" all allowed us to slow it down for a bit so that when the action picked up it was inspired. Here, there were moments where the cacophony of noise and visuals became numbing.
That said, "Wreck-It Ralph" falls somewhere between those louder films and Disney Animation’s "Tangled" which was as close to a Pixar film as Disney has ever had. It’s an enjoyable confection, for sure, and the message and characters are a treat to watch.