For at least a decade now, the first name in animation has been Pixar, with the Disney half of that combination generally omitted. Pixar’s dedication to the best storytelling in both written and visual form as well as incredible creativity and cleverness has generally gone unparalleled, but plain old Disney Animation show it’s catching up fast with “Wreck-It Ralph.”
The concept behind “Wreck-It Ralph” owes a lot to the “Toy Story” movies that started the entire CGI revolution, but the level of complexity and creative world-building required by “Ralph” puts “Toy Story” in the bargain bin. Creating a world in which video game characters exist in a virtual network of arcade games after the arcade closes takes some serious ingenuity, which not only do director Rich Moore, writers Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston and the entire creative team have in spades, but they keep their foot on the creativity gas pedal the entire time.
Based on the genre’s track record, an animated movie overflowing with this much artistic production design would likely fail in some fundamental aspect of the story, but “Wreck-It Ralph” wastes no time establishing Ralph as a character you sympathize with. The concept of a video game bad guy who has feelings and gets treated poorly because his job is to be mean fuels the emotional journey of the story from the opening minutes, though credit also to the writing and the voice work of John C. Reilly for making it such a convincing sell.
After throwing Ralph this successful pity party, the film shows off its abundance of imagination and cleverness. As we see “Game Central Station” for the first time, essentially a power strip where the characters of every game can mingle, we get most of the film’s famous video game character cameos. Because the film is still constructing this elaborate universe, we also get treated to several brilliant moments in which instead of traditional CGI, we will see a clip of the scene as if it were happening on an 8-bit arcade screen.
The genius of “Wreck-It Ralph” in this regard simply can’t be understated. It’s easily the most creative and genuinely hilarious animated film since “Toy Story 3,” and if you discount that, then all of recent memory. Gamers will love the countless early references and most adults in general will find the beginning of “Ralph” to be the best part. The script clearly takes the strategy of dropping in most of the easter eggs at the front end so it can win audiences over quickly and focus on the core narrative in the later acts. At this point, the humor in the story also shifts to something more geared at kids, though it never stops pumping the creative juices.
Determined to win a medal so he can prove to everyone in his game, “Fix-It Felix Jr.,” that he’s a true hero, Ralph abandons his post as building-wrecker and searches for a way to prove himself (or just get his hands on a shiny medal). He sneaks into the first-person sci-fi shooter “Hero’s Duty” and when that plan goes awry, he accidentally ends up in the candy-coated racing game “Sugar Rush” and becomes entangled in an entirely new conflict after “Sugar Rush” character Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), an outcast in her game, steals his medal.
The plot does get a bit complicated, but the film remains dedicated to its characters throughout and doesn’t ever get too lost. Even Ralph goes from a character we pity at first to someone who’s rather flawed in how he just wants to be treated like a hero rather than earn it. Naturally, the situation in the world of “Sugar Rush” provides the ultimate test for his character. He and Vanellope strike a deal so he can get his medal and so she can win a spot as a starting racer in “Sugar Rush” despite being a glitch in the game.
Setting the majority of the later half of the movie in the candy world of “Sugar Rush,” the creativity comes in the form of creative junkfood jokes such as donut cops and an abundance of candy puns, as well as Ralph and Vanellope exchanging childish insults. It can get overbearing, but something clever and hilarious lies in wait around every corner to cancel the cheesy stuff out.
The sheer force of this film’s vision and inventiveness has the power to mask pretty much any knock you might consider holding against it, and it doesn’t substitute creativeness for visual quality either. “Ralph” looks excellent, with props to the way that film’s retro arcade characters move like 8-bit game characters despite being in CGI.
“Wreck-It Ralph” doesn’t quite have the same degree of heart as Pixar’s best offerings, but considering the extremely commercial nature of the concept, the fact that it does pull heartstrings at all is something that will make you think even less of films like “Cars 2.” Ralph’s arrival at self-realization has somewhat of an obvious trajectory, but it’s not as clear cut as the moral lessons presented in most animated movies. There are some powerful turns in the emotional narrative that you don’t expect from a movie that combines the shooting of deadly alien bugs and little tween-age girls driving edible race cars.
Ultimately, “Wreck-It Ralph” offers something we just haven’t seen (outside of “Toy Story”) since the dawn of the CGI era: a near-perfect merging of the somewhat mindless and shiny commercial appeal common in lesser family films and the creative and visual brilliance and committed storytelling of the genre’s absolute best.
Directed by Rich Moore
Written by Jennifer Lee, Phil Johnston, John C. Reilly
Starring: (voice) John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Alan Tudyk, Jane Lynch