Silver Screen: Wreck-it Ralph ***1/2
The bad guy decides to go good in Wreck-it Ralph, a zippy, consistently funny new computer-animated family friendly comedy. It's a wonder nobody has explored the world of videogames for this sort of silly cartoon excursion before, but the team of director Rich Moore and cowriters Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee do more than just stake out the territory, they mine it for (almost) all it's worth.
Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the meathead heavy in Fix-it Felix, a classic arcade game that plays like the opposite of the monster smashup Rampage. Rather than trying to destroy a city building, Felix (Jack McBrayer) uses his magical hammer to repair the damage done by Ralph, who rains down bricks and anger on his foe. But it's not Ralph's fault when a player drops in a quarter, he's supposed to destroy. It's just a job. But playing the heel for a couple of decades has worn down his self-esteem, and not even the kind words of his fellow villains-- Street Fighter’s Zangief, Super Mario Brothers’ Bowser, or the ghost from Pac Man-- can bolster his spirits.
Thinking he can change his social status within his own game if he wins one of the hero medals Felix earns every time he wins, Ralph ventures out of his own game and through the wires in the arcade to other machines hoping to win one as the good guy. But his meddling does more than throw off the social order; it causes chaos in the arcade. Fix-it Felix gets slated for removal now that it has no villain, and a savage alien villain from a modern-day first-person shooter is let loose in the cheery racing game Sugar Rush. Felix and Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a jaded veteran from the violent alien-killing game, go in search of Ralph to repair the damage, while our newly heroic villain works to help another outcast game character (Sarah Silverman) and uncover the secret conspiracy in the candy-coated world of Sugar Rush.
A lot of the fun of Wreck-it Ralph comes from its videogame version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? world-blending. At Ralph's villain-support group alone we see nefarious representatives from Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, Sonic the Hedgehog's nemesis Doctor Wiley, and Mario foe Bowser. His game now defunct, Qbert wanders through Game Central Station panhandling. Several key characters are missing-- no Italian plumbers?-- and using the real franchise characters certainly curbs the filmmakers' abilities to satirize them too heavily, but it makes for fun, recurring visual gags that will please older viewers.
Wreck-it Ralph is a Disney production, but it's not from Pixar, which means it's the B-squad. That's most evident in the movie's bilateral approach to jokes, alternating between pop-culture references parents will chuckle at and timeless poop-and-fart jokes to pander to kids. The magic of Pixar is that the studio's best films rarely play on only two levels, favoring instead jokes that manage to appeal to all ages in the same way. Humor that bridges generations like that is truly difficult to create, but it's the difference between a great all-ages movie and a fun diversion that actively works to appeal to multiple demographics.
Though it could easily (and accurately) be described as a Toy Story knockoff with videogame characters, and though it is in fact no Toy Story, Wreck-it Ralph is still pretty darn good. Reilly leads an ace voiceover cast that imbues the digitized characters with some real humanity, and the script keeps up an assemblyline output of solid jokes. The videogame world is brilliantly realized and further accentuated by sharp 3D effects, although it would have been fun to see more of it. After a fast-paced first half-hour in which Ralph gets incongruously thrust into several different games, the movie settles into Sugar Rush as its primary setting, minimizing the razzle-dazzle of the game mashups. Still, it's solid kiddie entertainment that still holds genuine appeal for anyone who grew up post-Atari.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.