Reel To Reel: Wreck-It Ralph
Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk
Red Flags: Video game violence (but nothing worse than what your kids are already playing) and mild potty-mouth jokes
Wreck-It Ralph is a loving tribute to classic video games, the kind I grew up with in the 1980's. Twice a year, Mom and Dad would take my brother and I and our friends to Showbiz Pizza Place for our birthdays, and we would feed the arcade machines as many quarters as my folks could afford. That was when coin-op gaming only cost a quarter, and the animated violence maxed out at Mario getting hit in the head with a barrel.
The movie's title character (Reilly) is the star villain of a video game modeled after Donkey Kong. Miffed that somebody moved his stump for an apartment building, he proceeds to wreck the place on every quarter. Players control the hero, Fix-It Felix Jr. (McBrayer) who climbs the floors and undoes the damage. Felix gets a medal at the end of each level while Ralph gets tossed to the ground by the grateful tenants and exiled to a nearby dump.
This has been going on for years and years, and the Fix-It Felix Jr. game is still taking quarters at the neighborhood arcade even as other games come and go. Such staying power would inspire pride in a lot of people, but not Ralph. The act's getting stale, and we see it in the beautifully executed opening minutes of the movie as he shares with a 12-step group for anonymous video game villains. Such a gathering happens in the style of Night At The Museum; when the arcade closes, the video game characters are free to leave their consoles and travel along the electrical wires to other games. They mingle inside a surge protector dubbed Game Central Station, a place where you'll see Sonic the Hedgehog reminding the characters that they can't regenerate if they die outside their game and Q*Bert begging for handouts after his machine was unplugged.
When the other characters of Ralph's game celebrate an anniversary without him, he understandably feels undervalued. Felix wouldn't have anything to fix in a game devoid of his presence. Ralph vows to win a medal, but knowing he can't do it in his game, he learns he can earn one down the wires in Hero's Mission, a first-person shooter commanded by Sergeant Calhoun (Lynch). Ralph sneaks in and grabs his medal, but his brief moment of triumph goes haywire when he accidentally launches himself and one of the game's virus-like baddies into a girly-girl racing game called Sugar Rush.
Inside a world that morphs Candy Land with Mario Kart, he meets aspiring Vanellope von Schweetz (Silverman). She sees Ralph's medal as her ticket out of a hopeless, glitchy life in a domain ruled by King Candy (Tudyk, with a voice that reminded me of the forgotten jack-in-the-box from "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer"). Meanwhile, Ralph's game is going haywire, and the entire arcade could go with it if Felix and Calhoun don't stop the creature that's multiplying under the streets of sweets.
Wreck-It Ralph is a family movie you're not shy about taking the kids to see. In fact, you secretly want to see it more than the kids. Or you'll just go yourself (like I did). It masterfully blends different games from different eras with plenty of in-jokes for the retro gamer while keeping the children interested. It also keeps its manic sequences -- those compulsory elements of CGI kid-flicks -- restrained and reasonable.
As I mentioned, different games' characters mingle throughout the film, which I'm sure kept Disney's legal department busy all through the development cycle. Retro-gaming has gotten a nice slice of shelf space over the past few years, and Ralph will surely help it. I'd like to see the original Pac-Man and Donkey Kong back in arcades. I can only fathom so many flavors of Mortal Kombat or Doom.
What's more, I find Wreck-It Ralph has more of a heart than previous Disney CGI animation titles, and it's no surprise why: Pixar alum John Lasseter is executive producer, someone who knows how to make these films work on multiple levels with honest emotions and characters we care about.