Monday, November 05, 2012

From zero to hero: "Wreck-It Ralph" shoots and scores


Directed by Rich Moore
Voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Mindy Kaling, others

You don’t have to be a gamer to enjoy “Wreck-It Ralph,” Disney’s delightful adventure about a video game villain who decides he wants to be a hero for a change. Nor do you have to belong to any particular demographic group; the movie’s built to appeal to all ages and both genders. But you’re likely to be most entertained if you’re one of those who grew up with the first generation of video game technology – that is, basically anyone who remembers whiling away big chunks of the ’80s and early ’90s in an arcade or in front of an Atari 2600 or a Nintendo or Sega system. Credit Disney for a bit of marketing genius: this is the perfect movie for that generation to see with their kids, who can revel in the finest state-of-the-art computer animation of today while their parents joyfully spot old friends of yesteryear like Q-bert, Dig-Dug, Bowser, and Sonic the Hedgehog.

But “Wreck-It Ralph” is more than just a trip down nostalgia lane for Generation Xers. It’s also a Disney movie that plays and feels like a Pixar movie, which (“Cars 2” aside) is pretty much the highest emblem of praise for animated films today. Like any good children’s fantasy, the film creates a rich alternate universe - here, the secret world of a video game arcade - that's ingeniously tied to our own. Off the clock, after the arcade is closed for the day, the video game characters can kick back, whether by partying down, solitary tippling at Tapper's (an actual video game from the '80s), or attending support groups, and are free to jump from one game to another. The only caveat: if they die outside their own game, it’s truly game over for them; they won’t “regenerate” as they can on their own turf. Every morning, before the arcade opens, everyone hustles back to their respective games via Game Central Station, which, you guessed it, is a dead-on replica of Grand Central, only teeming with classic video game icons.

It’s not a bad life, but it’s better for some than others, an injustice that eats away at Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly, king of sad-sack roles). Ralph’s thankless job is to smash up an apartment building while the hero of his game, “Fix-It” Felix (“30 Rock”’s Jack McBrayer), rushes to repair the damage. Tired of seeing Felix toasted each night by the building’s residents while he himself is relegated to the garbage dump, Ralph decides to prove that he’s a hero, too, by winning a medal in another game. His quest leads him first to the modern paramilitary mission Hero’s Duty, then to a Candy Land-like racing game called Sugar Rush, where he forms an unlikely alliance with a mouthy, glitchy girl-avatar named Vanellope von Sweetz (Sarah Silverman) whose own dream is to win a race she's forbidden even to enter. Meanwhile, hot on the delinquents’ trail are Fix-It Felix, looking to bring Ralph back into the fold, and the stoic Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), tracking down a cyber-virus Ralph inadvertently let loose from Hero’s Duty, as well as King Candy (Alan Tudyk), the Mad Hatter-like ruler of Sugar Rush who’s obsessed with preventing Vanellope from racing.

The visual design of the movie is outstanding, down to the last detail. None of the principal games featured in the narrative are real games, but they’re astoundingly plausible imitations, especially when shown from the outside players’ perspective—from the primitive, Donkey Kong-esque graphics of Fix-It Felix (complete with flat, tinny beep-boop music) to the sleek hi-def animation and blazing gunfire of Hero’s Duty. And there are, of course, more real video game references than you can shake a stick at—certainly way more than I caught, and probably even more than a die-hard gamer could catch on first viewing. The relationship between the players on one side of the controls and the characters on the other is also cleverly handled, simultaneously reinforcing the separateness and the interconnectedness of the two worlds.

But in the end “Wreck-It Ralph” rises and falls by the emotional dynamics between the characters inside the games, and on this score, too, it succeeds. The kinship between Ralph and Vanellope may seem predictable at the outset, but over the course of the movie develops into a bond that feels genuine and believable. So much so, in fact, that the crisis points in their relationship—most memorably, when Ralph deliberately destroys something precious to Vanellope, and much later, when Vanellope sees him about to sacrifice something even more precious—are positively heart-stopping. Ralph’s fallibility is key here. The movie may ultimately be about self-fulfillment and realizing one’s dreams, but it doesn’t hesitate to show its would-be hero making some profoundly misguided assumptions and terrible decisions along the way.

Like its protagonist, “Wreck-It” isn’t without its share of flaws. Particularly in the beginning, it indulges a bit too much in broad gags that have more of a Dreamworks than a Pixar flavor. The film also piles up a few too many subplots, leading to a slightly saggy middle section and a slightly overstuffed, hectic climax. Still, overall it manages to tie the various threads together in the end without undercutting the basic power of its premise. At bottom, it’s a movie that shows that there’s more than one way to be a hero, and that the truest kind of heroism springs from love, not the desire to be loved. Forget video games—that’s pure Disney at its best.


BONUS: Speaking of pure Disney at its best, “Wreck-It Ralph” is preceded by a black-and-white short film, “The Paperman,” about a young man and woman drawn together by chance and a sheaf of white paper. It’s a sentimental wisp of a tale, but it’s also gorgeous in a retro way, reminiscent of the hand-drawn animation of Disney artists from decades ago. In actual fact, the animation is a remarkable combination of drawing and computer design. If that's Disney's future, sign me up.


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