Critics, upon viewing “Wreck-It Ralph,” the new animated feature directed by “Futurama” and “The Simpsons” veteran Rich Moore, will inevitably compare it to Pixar’s “Toy Story” trilogy. Hell, I know I’m going to make the connection. Due to the film’s subject matter, it’s almost inescapable.
“Wreck-It Ralph” follows Ralph, a video game character voiced by the always charming John C. Reilly, as he attempts to redefine himself. Ralph is a Donkey Kong-like “villain” whose day job involves destroying a simulated apartment building on an arcade screen while the Mario-esque Fix-it Felix (voiced by Jack McBrayer of “30 Rock”) rebuilds the complex at the behest of the arcade’s clients. Dissatisfied with always playing the bad guy, Ralph proceeds to leave his game, jumping among various gaming genres in search of a more fulfilling digital existence.
Unlike “Toy Story,” however, “Wreck-It Ralph” is far less interested in the relationship between play-things and those who enjoy them than it is with the world those play-things inhabit, a kinetically exuberant environment speckled with hosts of famous pop-culture icons and in-jokes which are sure to delight both hard-core and casual gamers. In this way, “Ralph” might be better compared to “Monsters, Inc.” in its approach, possessing a surplus of charm, wit, and genuine appreciation for the role its subject plays in evoking a general cultural consciousness, as well as a willingness to go off the rails and indulge in the wackiness that the younger portions of its audience crave.
As someone who is only casually acquainted with gaming culture, I was somewhat hesitant to review this film, afraid that I might not appreciate it to the degree that someone more immersed in the medium might. And to some degree, I probably didn’t. But the great thing about “Ralph” is that as much as it wants to honor a cultural niche, its appeal is in no way sequestered in that niche. Rather, the true glory of the film is its success at deriving moments of honest emotion from an area that is often written off as rote or emotionless. In its best moments, “Wreck-It Ralph” explores what it means to struggle with seemingly inescapable external definition. When it really shines as a movie, “Wreck-It Ralph” could be about any form of entertainment, or even none at all.
This cultural commentary is complemented by the wealth of humor and energy the film brings to the table. The animation is brightly colored and expertly paced, moving between settings and supporting characters with an ease that leaves you shell-shocked when, at the film’s conclusion, it deftly sews together its myriad plot threads for humorous and heartfelt fireworks. It’s an intelligent picture that is not pretentious or preachy and is a thrill ride that’s adrenaline never overwhelms its core dedication to compassion and self-discovery. With a perfectly chosen supporting cast, featuring the likes of Jane Lynch (as a battle-hardened shooter avatar) and Sarah Silverman (as a Strawberry Shortcake parody), “Ralph” offers the audience a manically human buffet of content and character.
“Wreck-It Ralph” revitalizes hope in the Disney brand without the need for the “Pixar” or “Marvel” safeguards. Like all the best films from the House of Mouse, it reminds viewers of the undeniable truths that pervade seemingly banal subjects, and that can be brought out with transcendent brilliance in just the right light.