When your name is Wreck-It Ralph and you no longer want to wreck things—well, what you got there is an existential drama.
The title character in Disney’s computer-animated feature is a burly thug in bibs, with two huge fists which he uses, spitefully, to inflict damage on a building. His counterpart is an insufferably chipper handyman who scampers around tapping Ralph’s wreckage with a hammer, thus repairing it. All of this happens within the confines of a video game in the ‘80s arcade style, a la Pac-man or Super Mario Bros.
The chirpy handyman is the game’s titular hero, Fix-It Felix Jr., and Ralph is the designated Bad Guy—a successful game ends with him getting thrown off the building’s roof. Ralph’s been going through this for decades, and he’s sick of it. He’s had to start attending a Bad Guy’s support group, where another heavy tells him “You are Bad Guy, but this does not mean you are bad guy.”
Ralph can’t take this to heart, however. He’s determined to try his hand at being a good guy, so he leaves his game and goes seeking glory in other, more modern games in the arcade—first Hero’s Duty, a grim and violent milieu in which armored space soldiers led by a fearsome Amazon battle giant invading bugs, and later Sugar Rush, a racing game through a land in which everything is made of sweet stuff. In the latter he meets Vanellope, a wisecracking urchin who’s been told she’s a “glitch” in the system.
While all this is going on, the characters back at Ralph’s home are suddenly aware that they can’t function without him. The game soon has an Out Of Order sign on it, and with no antagonist, the very dated machine is in serious danger of being replaced. Felix, who after all is the sort of person who always tries to fix everything, heads off in search of his old nemesis.
The premise of Wreck-It Ralph is thus similar to that of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, but its application to the world of old-school video games is more complex and ingeniously worked-out. To those who grew up in that world, I’d guess the movie might even mean more than it did to me. I played a game of Pac-man every now and then in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but I was never very good at it, and I didn’t hang out in arcades too often. Many people at the screening of Wreck-It Ralph that I saw were laughing at references that were lost on me.
Yet even without this nostalgic element, the movie works beautifully. Taking off from the odd notion of Ralph’s discontent, the plot gradually expands to nearly epic scope, with elements from all the games converging in the exciting race finale in Sugar Rush. What surprised me even more than the seamlessness of the storytelling, however, was the depth of its emotion. The gradual bond between Ralph and Vanellope is unexpectedly touching.
The voice actors have a lot to do with this. The ever-reliable John C. Reilly brings his voice’s singular combination of overripe thickness and underlying heart to Ralph. Sarah Silverman doesn’t have to take many steps to infantilize herself, endearingly, as the chattering, unflappable Vanellope. Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch use their usual personas to fine effect as, respectively, Fix-It Felix and Sgt. Calhoun from Hero’s Duty.
Wreck-It Ralph’s release, between the summer and holiday blockbuster seasons, suggests that Disney might be unsure about its prospects. But I have a feeling it could be a hit—the crowd with whom I saw it really responded to it. I was about to say it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, when I realized that at least three of my top-ten contenders for 2012 are animated kidflicks. It’s a great time for the genre.