Director: Rich Moore
Writers: Phil Johnston & Jennifer Lee
Starring (voices of): John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Mindy Kaling
Length: 101 min.
Succeeding not only as a love letter to video game enthusiasts but a touching story about social outcasts, Wreck-It Ralph is the best video game based film yet. While this might be considered a small benchmark – though the likes of Uwe Boll’s contributions to contemporary cinema can never be understated – Ralph’s success hinges on its not being an adaptation of a video game, but rather a film about video games. This Disney production never reaches the transcendent heights of output by animation alumni Pixar or Studio Ghibli; however, in terms of pure giddy entertainment Ralph’s colourful cyber odyssey stands just as tall.
The film centres on its titular character (John C. Reilly), a giant of a man stuck in a career of perpetual villainy in the arcade video game Fix-It Felix Jr. Fed up with being the bad guy to do-gooder game protagonist Felix (Jack McBrayer), Ralph embarks on a journey through the arcade in an effort to finally become the hero.
After a disastrous stint in the military shooter spoof Hero’s Duty, Ralph enters the candy kingdom realm of Sugar Rush, a sugary re-imagining of titles like Mario Kart. There he meets the hyperactive Strawberry Shortcake-esque cherub Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a glitch in the video game who too has found herself a villain in the eyes of her pixie kin. As the pair bonds and bickers, the unlikely pairing of stereotypical strong female character Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) and Felix are on Ralph’s tail to undo his destruction.
Ralph deftly balances a mix of competent slapstick humour for children and pun-laden, razor sharp dialogue for adults throughout its duration. The first 30 minutes suffer from uneven pacing, but the avalanche of video game references will keep gamers smirking. Everyone from stalwart mascots like Mario and Sonic to Q*Bert has their moment in the spotlight, and everything from graffiti to dialogue to animation stylings are used to craft a delightful, loving tribute to the video game medium. This is fan service without pandering.
Surprisingly, though, the film’s main strength is the relationship between Ralph and Vanellope. The pitch perfect pairing of Reilly and Silverman creates a heartfelt bond between these outcasts as they try to find their footing in worlds that have ignored them for their differences. The villain and glitch metaphors are fairly thin, but the performers bring a poignancy to the characters and their relationship that is all the more moving for avoiding the usual saccharine sludge.
While the obligatory comic relief coupling of Calhoun and Felix is less engaging, McBrayer and Lynch’s on-target voice work embellishes it nicely. Indeed, Disney should be praised for looking beyond publicity-scoring names for its voice cast (I’m looking at you, Dreamworks Animation).
On top of this delectable cake Disney offers a rainbow-coloured topping. The arcade’s different video game realms, from Ralph’s 8-Bit machine to the high definition warfare of Hero’s Duty, allow for a kaleidoscopic variety of art styles that keeps the onscreen mayhem fresh. In particular the visual inventiveness of Sugar Rush surpasses any Willy Wonka adaptation with its coke bottle mountains, taffy vines and chocolate powder quicksand.
The character designs don’t achieve the expressiveness of the old man and boy from Up (Pete Docter & Bob Peterson 2009), for example, but are pleasing enough. The use of 3-D is more troubling; it’s a tired adage by now, but paying the extra fee only nets you a pair of glasses that dulls the fantastic vibrancy of the film.
Still, it’s Ralph and Vanellope that carry this film on their respectively large and small shoulders. The film’s tidy moral of accepting others no matter their differences might lack depth for older audiences, but it is emotionally satisfying and not hammered home like a public service announcement. This semblance of (not too sickly) heart, and a strong script, elevates Wreck-it-Ralph beyond a brain dead night of fun playing Halo.