November 01, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph

Don't you dare say this movie's the pits

Grade: B –
Director: Rich Moore
Starring the voices of: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch and Alan Tudyk
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 1 hr. 48 min.

You don’t have to be a video gamer to enjoy Wreck-It Ralph, but it sure helps. Cameos by Pac-Man, Q*bert and Sonic the Hedgehog are only the tip of the gaming giddiness also conjured by thinly veiled versions of arcade and console favs from Super Mario Bros. to Halo. The reason you don’t see the actual Mario or Cortana is likely a matter licensing, an irony for a film so whetted to brand promotion.

Indeed, there’s something incestuous about animated entertainment grounded in the alternate realities of other animated entertainment. And there’s something repetitive about yet another animated movie about the bad guy who yearns to be good: Shrek, Puss in Boots, Despicable Me, Megamind, and so on.

For 30 years, Ralph (voiced ably by John C. Reilly) and Felix (Jack McBrayer, 30 Rock) have starred in a Donkey Kong knockoff called Fix-It Felix Jr. Every day, Ralph destroys an apartment building, and Felix, his magic hammer and the building’s inhabitants rebuild their home and toss Ralph off the roof. At night, Felix and his friends relax in their condos while lonely, ostracized Ralph settles down a safe distance from the decent 8-bit folk.

Weary of laying his head on a literal bed of bricks and being treated as a pariah in his virtual community, Ralph leaves Felix Jr. and e-ports away in search of glory and respect. First up is a 3-D military-style game named Hero’s Duty, a mélange of Call of Duty and Starship Troopers, where the curvaceous, battle-hardened narrator Calhoun (Jane Lynch) comes programed with her own tragic wedding day backstory.

The film’s latter half, however, takes place in the game Sugar Rush, a candy land where the product placement is as relentless as the confectionary hues. There Ralph befriends Vanellope (Sarah Silverman, superb), a sassy sprite who is a “glitch” in the game’s system. There’s a big race that Vanellope needs to win in order to correct her pixilated predicament and be able to venture outside her game (explanation unknown and never provided).

This collision of old and new video games isn’t just a contrast in evolving technology. It’s an appraisal of the changing mores of youth over the past quarter century or so. The low-fi innocence of Fix-It Felix Jr. has given way to hyper-violent fare like Hero’s Duty. In a limited way, Wreck-It Ralph does the same, sprinkling vapid scatological references in a genre built on Cinderella and Mickey Mouse.

All the eye candy obscures a few story flaws, chief among them that Ralph and his defection are blamed for nearly seeing the plug pulled on Fix-It Felix Jr., with no culpability assigned to the denizens whose shabby treatment of their game’s costar pushed him off the grid.

But who cares about plot continuity when there’s a big race, big battle and big reveal to get to?  There’s a lot in Wreck-It Ralph to please Xbox-owning kids and their erstwhile arcade-going parents. But, like a disappointing version update, it might look better but it’s still the same game.

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