In the tradition of “Toy Story,” “Wreck-It Ralph” imagines the secret lives of children’s playthings, only here, it’s videogame characters who come to life after an arcade closes its doors. Tired of being bad, a Donkey Kong-style demolition expert quits his destructive day job to become a hero, inadvertently wreaking havoc as he travels from game to game in search of redemption. With plenty to appeal to boys and girls, old and young, Walt Disney Animation Studios has a high-scoring hit on its hands in this brilliantly conceived, gorgeously executed toon, earning bonus points for backing nostalgia with genuine emotion.
From Maleficent to Scar, as long as there have been Disney animated movies, the villains have stood out as their most memorable characters. Flipping that dynamic, a la “Wicked,” the story team behind “Wreck-It Ralph” — director Rich Moore and scribes Phil Johnston (“Cedar Rapids”) and Jennifer Lee — decided to position a classic 8-bit baddie as the center of their affectionate homage to the world of videogames. The fun begins at a “Bad-Anon” sharing session, where various villains have gathered — in Pac-Man’s ghost home, of course — to commiserate about their sorry lot in life.
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Unlike humans, these hard-coded characters don’t enjoy the benefits of free will. Instead, they have been programmed to be aggressive — and ultimately beaten by the heroes in their respective games. For Ralph (John C. Reilly, a naturally comedic star with a voice ripe for animation), that means being thrown in the mud and having to sleep in the junkyard every night while Fix It Felix Jr. (“30 Rock’s” ultra-peppy Jack McBrayer) parties with the Nicelanders. Lucky for Ralph, he can hop the train to Grand Game Central, a giant surge-protector terminal where digital creations are free to mingle after dark, offering licensed cameos from Q*bert, Sonic the Hedgehog and Tapper for the benefit of those old enough to remember them. But Ralph mustn’t forget the key rule: “If you die outside your own game, you don’t regenerate, ever.”
Truth be told, there are a staggering number of rules governing the gameplay in “Wreck-It Ralph,” and one of the toon’s greatest pleasures comes in how intuitively audiences discover those parameters as the story unfolds. For example, Ralph’s key ally is a candy-coated “glitch” named Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) running loose in “Sugar Rush Speedway,” a “Mario Kart”-style racing game set in a literal Candyland. No one really knows what would happen if Vanellope, outcast because of her buggy condition, were to compete, though spritely-voiced Silverman infuses the underdog character with such untamed passion, her instant fans can’t wait to find out.
Of course, landing a knockout concept is a cake walk compared to finding the storytelling angle that takes full advantage of the incredible world they’ve invented. Under the leadership of executive producer John Lasseter, helmer Moore (a “Simpsons” vet) and his team begin with the bright idea of paying tribute to retro games, find an inspired way in by focusing on an affable antihero determined to make good, and then allow auds to sample several games along the way.
Ralph’s first stop after abandoning the relatively tame “Fix It Felix Jr.” environment is an intense “Halo”-esque game called “Hero’s Duty,” a quarter-eating first-person shooter console in which no-nonsense Sgt. Calhoun (Jane Lynch) leads troops in a neverending battle against mutant “cybugs.” The fact that Moore manages to divide the film’s time between this intense guy-centric game and the super-girly Sugar Rush without alienating the sort of people who would gravitate to either one is a testament to the rock-solid emotional foundation on which the story stands. Couple that with some truly inspired voice casting (none more uproarious than Alan Tudyk as the lisping King Candy), and the ensemble is positively irresistible, as in-jokes and saltier-than-usual PG humor keep the laughs coming.
While the quick-to-anger Ralph discovers the value of friendship by agreeing to help Vanellope, romance sparks between Felix and Calhoun, who team up to track down a rogue cybug before it destroys the entire arcade. All four characters are enriched by backstories cleverly revealed over the course of the film (stick through the end credits to hear the “Fix It Felix Jr.” song that explains why Ralph is so upset, as well as AKB48’s fizzy J-pop “Sugar Rush” theme) and animated in a way that incorporates the limitations of their original lo-fi design while still allowing them to benefit from state-of-the-art CGI, including an intuitive use of 3D that enhances dramatic and action scenes alike.
The vintage gaming influences permeate every aspect of the production, from the 8-bit Disney logo that opens the film to Henry Jackman’s dynamic score, which supplies a different sound for each world while tipping its hat to Koji Kondo and the composers of classic Namco and Nintendo themes. The art department clearly had a blast building the various worlds, especially the diabetes-inducing Sugar Rush Speedway, while character designers responded to the challenge by creating familiar-looking avatars that could entertain in any environment.
Making the package even more delightful is John Kahrs’ black-and-white (with romantic splashes of red) hand-drawn short “Paperman,” a six-minute mood-setter about a gangly paper-pusher who meets the single gal of his dreams on the train and spends the rest of the day trying to get her attention using the only tool he has: a million paper airplanes. Christophe Beck’s score is the cherry on top this slice of animated perfection.