It's not every year that Disney's non-Pixar animated feature beats out the original property offered up by the creators of Toy Story, Up, and the upcoming Monster's University, but this year that's exactly what happened. The volumes of fun and creativity bounding forth from Disney's Wreck-It Ralph are immense and it's enough to suggest the film as the front contender for the 2012's best animated feature, even when measured up against Pixar's Brave (which seems stale and lackluster by comparison). Wreck-It Ralph pays tasteful homage to the video games of old while still mixing things up with those of the modern era, and what's more impressive is that instead of descending into a pile of cliched one-liner observations about gaming, the script and characters are sharp and the film's lessons different from your typical children's fare. For 2012, Wreck-It Ralph is the animated film most worth watching.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to make a family-friendly film that pays heavy tribute to a subsection of popular culture while still being accessible to just about everyone, and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph is a perfect example of the ideal outcome. At its core, Wreck-It Ralph is the familiar message about loving yourself for who you are and making a perceived flaw into your proudest quirk, but to frame that concept Disney entrenches it in a world of video games, both classic and contemporary, in a way that’s guaranteed to provoke absolute glee from adults and children alike. It’s funny, it’s beautifully done, and has a cast led by John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, and Jack McBrayer to deliver its sometimes subversive laughs.
When the lights go out and the arcade closes, the characters from beloved video games like Street Fighter, Sonic the Hedgehog, and others congregate in a digital space (the surge protector where they’re all plugged in) and hang out. For the heroes of the video games, everything’s nice and cheery, but for characters like Wreck-It Ralph, of the game Fix-It Felix (a riff on Rampage and the original Donkey Kong), it’s hard not to feel resented. Every day, Ralph (Reilly) gets rejected by the characters whose home he destroys in the game and seeks solace in a support group for villains (populated by the likes of Street Fighter’s Zangief and M. Bison, a ghost from Pac Man, Sonic the Hedgehog’s Dr. Robotnik, and more).
Eventually that ceases to be enough, and Ralph decides he’d be better off in another game where he could be the hero, earn a medal, and return to his old game with some newfound respect. Unfortunately, in his attempts to do this, he unleashes an insectoid menace from a newfangled first-person shooter into the colorful, candy-themed racing game of Sugar Rush, where Ralph befriends a little girl (Silverman) who wants to join in the races but is forbidden from doing so by the game’s king (Alan Tudyk) because she’s just a glitch in the programming. When the kids in the arcade notice Ralph has gone missing from the game, it’s labeled as broken and set to be shut down unless Felix (McBrayer) can find Ralph and bring him back to the game.
The film’s lesson is simple, but there’s quite a bit going on in the game and it never feels crowded or overly complicated. Instead, it manages to hit all the right spots with its bright colors and easy laughs so the kids can enjoy it, while also piling on the video game references as well as some unexpected but fantastic moments of dark humor that catch the adults off guard and keep them entertained. In fact, it’s entirely possible that Wreck-It Ralph will resonate more with the adults than the kids as the bulk of the comedy is definitely going to go over their heads if it’s not slapstick or very obvious verbal jokes (like Silverman’s excellent portrayal of a young girl mocking Ralph’s seriousness).
No matter how many times I see John C. Reilly in a leading role, I’m always happily impressed by how well he does, probably due to his long-standing status and use in many films as a supporting player. Here he strikes just enough of a playful tone for his brutish but heartfelt character that he’s still believable as a guy who’s been a villain his entire digital life, while still having a deeper side to him, and he does so in such a way that’s plainly visible for even the youngest viewers. Sarah Silverman also does fantastically and she gives her character enough depth that she doesn’t just seem like another “cute kid” character with no actual personality, like what we got in Despicable Me. She’s not cute with an air of vulnerability just because she’s a kid and that’s what the story requires, the film gives her a genuine cause for sadness that’s something akin to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's that combines with an element of orphaned homelessness.
McBrayer does well enough himself, and the humorous romance that develops between him and a hardass military chick (Lynch) is often funny, but the true unexpected greatness in the voice cast comes from Alan Tudyk as the king of Sugar Rush. It’s a performance that falls somewhere between Woody Allen, the Mad Hatter, and Roger Rabbit in its dry zaniness, and it’s very clear that Tudyk had a lot of fun with the role.
Following on the tresses of Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph makes it very clear that the rest of Disney’s CG animation department is quickly catching up to its in-house rock stars, Pixar. It’s not quite there yet, but there’s no doubt that Wreck-It Ralph is better than some of Pixar’s worst (like Cars or the recently beautiful but hollow Brave). The sheer glee pouring out of Wreck-It Ralph's every joke makes it an easy film to watch and then rewatch over and over.
As for the film's 3D, as a computer generated film the 3D is obviously more at home and natural than those live-action films post-converted as an afterthought. Consequently, the 3D helps to enrich the lush worlds the film offers up and genuinely adds some depth to the worlds which could still probably have stood on their own purely because of how detailed the animators were (as much due to their expertise as to the necessity for some of the film's jokes). The at-home 3D keeps this intact, but it should be said that the vibrant colors and varied animation styles (depending on the world the film is exploring) help to make Wreck-It Ralph a visual treat whether you have a 3D set or not.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
The extras aren't as impressive or even as extensive as you'd like them to be, especially when you consider the four disc set has plenty of room into which to cram them. As is, the all of the extras appear on the Blu-ray disc, with the 3D Blu-ray and DVD only having the animated short "Paperman", which is very sweet and a fun concept, seems a bit paltry when you consider how much more space there was for additional stuff. Meanwhile, the Blu-ray includes that short along with a tour of the movie's gaming references by the increasingly omnipresent nerd expert Chris Hardwick, original video game commercials for Fix-It Felix, Jr., Hero's Duty, and Sugar Rush, and some deleted and alternate scenes (some of which tout an entire world we didn't see in this movie). The best extra however is the guide to the worlds we do see by the film's creators and animators, which shows you just how deep their appreciation for the gaming culture goes. An iTunes Digital Copy is also included.
"Wreck-It Ralph" is on sale February 5, 2013 and is rated PG. Adventure, Animation, Children & Family, Comedy. Directed by Rich Moore. Written by Rich Moore, Phil Johnston, Jim Reardon, Jennifer Lee. Starring Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, John C Reilly, Sarah Silverman.