In Wreck-It-Ralph, director Rich Moore depicts a world where video game villains aren’t inherently bad (in spite of their in-game evil hijinks), they’re just doing their job. Even though Pixar Studios enjoys a nearly unblemished spotlight at Disney, in-house Walt Disney Animation Studios, which has been churning out animated feature films since 1937 (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) continues to produce big screen hits for the Mouse House – including recent offerings Bolt, Tangled, and hand-drawn titles like The Princess and the Frog.
However, in an increasingly congested CGI-animation market, it’s more important than ever that animated films provide an enjoyable experience for both children and adults. Fortunately, Wreck-It-Ralph succeeds in its efforts with a solid mix of humorous adventuring, retro game nostalgia, and heartwarming story beats – one that gamers and non-gamers will easily relish.
Despite what the trailers might have indicated, knowledge of video games is not a prerequisite for appreciating Wreck-It-Ralph. Gamers will find plenty of tantalizing in-jokes (some subtle, some not-so-subtle) but, even though there are numerous easter eggs to relish, the core storyline centers around a straightforward character journey. For years, Wreck-It-Ralph (John C. Reilly) has diligently served as the antagonist to video game do-gooder, Fix-It-Felix, Jr. (Jack McBrayer). Although Ralph shares a healthy working relationship with Felix, he has grown tired of being treated like a villain after work hours and in an effort to win favor from the other characters in his game, Wreck-It-Ralph jumps into another title, Hero’s Duty, where he intends to win a medal that will prove bad guys can also be good guys.
In his attempt at heroism, Ralph inadvertently lands in Sugar Rush, a kid-friendly kart racing title, and falls victim to the wiles of Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a 9-year-old racer outcast, and is forced to help the girl win an upcoming competition – in exchange for his precious medal. Although, as the pair prepare for the race, they stumble upon a mysterious plot that threatens the entire arcade, forcing Ralph to confront what it really means to be a good guy.
As mentioned, the core storyline is straightforward and, without the video game setup, Wreck-It-Ralph would tell a pretty traditional Disney tale about rejecting established identities and discovering true heroism through adversity. The central character journey follows a number of recognizable beats, and some viewers will find certain developments predictable, but familiarity doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment that the movie supplies moment to moment. Rich setpieces and a mix of intriguing game environments allow for a range of interesting visuals and, subsequently, varied action and comedy beats. Unfortunately, even though there are countless arcade cabinets shown in the film, Wreck-It-Ralph only explores a tiny fraction of the available game worlds – leaving plenty of room for further franchise misadventures. The plot permits a few entertaining insights into the interconnected arcade world (such as Ralph’s Bad-Anon support group) but gaming fans looking to be inundated with cameos and other iconic gaming culture hat tips may find that the larger Wreck-It-Ralph story doesn’t include quite as much fan service as they might expect. However, even though some viewers might have hoped for a game-hopping adventure, the limited scope ultimately keeps everything tight – in service of a sharp character-focused story.
Ralph and Vanellope, like any good animated buddy film stars, create a smart mix of tenderness and humor – with a fun chemistry that both adults and children will be able to appreciate (even if the characters are surrounded by tongue-in-cheek setups like Nestle Quik-sand and Laffy Taffy tree vines). Regardless of the self-centered motivations in their initial encounter, and plenty of campy lessons about friendship, the two main players contain a surprising amount of depth – imparting a worthwhile and fitting commentary about acceptance and personal identity. Even if the overarching narrative is cut from a familiar Disney fairytale cloth, the video game backdrop breathes a lot of life into what would otherwise be tired character tropes – presenting a surprisingly unique, and amusing to watch, pair of underdogs.
The rich cast of supporting players, riffing on a diverse set of notable game inspirations, provide clever interpersonal drama and fun juxtapositions that compliment the main storyline – best exemplified by the oddball pairing of 8-Bit Felix, Jr. and Hero’s Duty heroine, Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun (Jane Lynch). Not only do the characters allow for a humorous glimpse into the evolution of game design, their varied personalities supply an compelling range of conflicts and humorous interactions. As mentioned, even though there are plenty of smaller cameos, none of the iconic franchise faces distract from the primary story beats – serving to add additional humor and immersion without taking anything away from the main plot.
A lot of moviegoers still believe that low quality CGI toon projects should get a pass because they’re just “kid movies” but films like Wreck-It-Ralph remind us that superior animated pictures are more than just cheep gags and one-note cliches – considering the film puts a new spin on tried-and-true stories about friendship and heroism. Not every element of Wreck-It-Ralph is entirely fresh, and some audience members may see a few of the twists and turns coming, but the movie excels with charming characters and a unique setting – delivering thoughtful insights for both young and old viewers.
The movie only skims the surface of its rich video game universe, and future installments could provide a more expansive look at the interconnected arcade world (plus make room for new cameos) but Moore shows smart restraint. Wreck-It-Ralph enjoys a healthy ratio of accessible character drama and goofy gaming gags – resulting in an exceptionally entertaining, and heartfelt, animated adventure.
Ben Kendrick blogs at Screen Rant.