A popular trend in children’s movie is to mix nostalgia or kitche with the aesthetic or the plot so that the film is appealing to both children and their parents, celebrating childhood memories while making new ones. Toy Story is a prime example. Wreck-It Ralph, the new animated movie from Disney, aspires to fit this formula with a tale about the adventures of a video game bad guy featuring plenty of puns and nostalgia for arcades. Despite some clever moments, the film fails to fully satisfy.
Wreck-It Ralph tells the story of the title character, the bad guy in a classic arcade game, Fix-It Felix Junior. In the game, Ralph (John C. Reilly) uses his enormous fists to wreck things and Felix (Jack McBrayer) uses his magic hammer to fix them up again. At the end of the game, Felix wins a medal and enjoys the company of the townsfolk while Ralph goes home, alone, to the dump after getting tossed off a building. After thirty years of being the bad guy, but not a bad guy, Ralph decides he’s had enough. He crashes the game’s anniversary party and is told, flippantly, that if he won a medal the town would let him live in the penthouse. Taking the challenge seriously, Ralph visits a neighboring first person shooter game, Hero’s Duty, in order to win a medal. Everything seems to go according to plan until Ralph ends up evacuating the game in a spacecraft infected with an evil cybug, crash landing in Sugar Rush, a racing game that looks like the love child of Mario Kart and Candy Land. While there, his medal is stolen by Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a “glitch” longing for her chance to race. The two eventually form an unlikely friendship as Ralph helps her get her chance on the track and she pledges to win his lost medal back. Meanwhile, Felix teams up with Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the commander in charge of Hero’s Duty, to find Ralph, hoping to save Fix-It Felix Junior from getting unplugged and the arcade from getting taken over by a cybug virus.
The movie starts out strongly with a clever spin on the typical hero story, focusing on Ralph as he attends a Bad Anonymous meeting and struggles with his identity as a villain. Quickly, though, the plot falls back on a stale story of learning to accept oneself, care for other people, and forge unlikely friendships. The love/hate (or rather love/annoy) relationship between Ralph and Vanellope has been used so many times that not even their cute banter could mask its tiredness. Ralph’s closing conclusion, “If that little kid likes me, how bad can I be?” is more conducive to eye-rolls than real satisfaction. In the end, it turns out that Vanellope is actually a sabotaged princess. That’s probably the epitome of the film’s cliches. It’s sort of refreshing that she turns down the role, deciding instead to rule as president of a constitutional democracy, but even still the movie is dominated by cliches in a way that may really entertain kids, but leave adults slightly bored.
The real entertainment value comes from a constant stream of visual references to old games and clever wordplay, some of which is vaguely inappropriate, but over kids’ heads. The wit of the film is brought to life by the talented voice work of the cast. John C. Reilly has an outstandingly rich voice suited for narrating the film and bringing depth to Ralph as a character. Sarah Silverman lays-off the sarcasm and uses the full range of her girlie voice on Vanellope, but at times it’s hard to remember that Vanellope is actually a child. Jack McBrayer’s Felix is basically his character Kenneth Parcell from 30 Rock, re-imagined as a hyper-confident video game hero. Meanwhile, Jane Lynch’s Calhoun savors strongly of Glee’s Sue Sylvester. In this way, the film’s actors were heavily type-cast, which created really clear characters but no room for actors to showcase any range to their talents.
Wreck-It Ralph features a lot of fun word play and a stunning visual aesthetic, but is still a generally mediocre film, earning it 3/5 stars.
Wreck-It Ralph was written by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee and directed by Rich Moore. It runs 101 minutes and is rated PG for some rude humor and mild action/violence.