There’s no two ways about it: Wreck-It Ralph is Disney’s way of saying that people my age are supposed to have kids old enough for this movie. The same way Toy Story was made to be palatable to parents who had grown up with cowboy figures, slinky dogs, and Potato Heads Mr. and Mrs., Wreck-It Ralph is made at least as much for those who, like me, grew up on video games as for the usual Disney audience. In fact, it may well be even more fun for the grown-ups who will recognize dozens of classic video-game references. And, it must be said, the filmmakers have gotten it right down to the last pixel.
Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the antagonist to Fix-It Felix, Jr. (Jack McBrayer) in their Donkey Kong-style game that’s been a fixture at Litwak’s Arcade for an impressive thirty years. Every game, Ralph wrecks the apartment building the Nicelanders built on his old field and Felix fixes it with the magic hammer he inherited from his father, earning a medal as Ralph gets heaved off the roof.
Ralph tries Bad-Anon, a bad-guy support group, and a visit to Tapper — evidently one of the post-1984 versions that switched the beverage from Budweiser to root beer — before deciding to earn a medal of his own by any means necessary. But video games from the early ’80s are no match for a modern first-person shooter like Hero’s Duty, which Ralph barely escapes with his life, crashing into the Japanese-inflected, candy-themed racer Sugar Rush.
Ralph is thrown into the midst of a scuffle between Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a glitchy racer wanting to get into the action, the bullies who pick on her like Taffyta Muttonfudge (Mindy Kaling), and King Candy (Alan Tudyk), who is desperate to keep Vanellope from racing. Meanwhile, Ralph has been followed by a bug from Hero’s Duty which threatens to run amok through Sugar Rush and all the other games in the arcade unless it can be stopped by Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the squad leader from Hero’s Duty who was programmed with the most tragic back-story ever.
There really is a lot going on here, and the plot unspools at the hyperkinetic pace kids since, well, my day have been pretty much trained for. Context is dropped in well-timed nuggets of exposition which, while not particularly elegant, do end up feeling like a game’s tutorial level. And for all its haphazard feel, the story is pretty tightly-knit, with early scenes’ tossed-off references coming back as key plot points later.
But it’s the texture — or at least the texture-mapping — of the world that really sells the film. Henry Jackman’s score is a winner, switching styles to match the games. This background is aided by a few original songs including the Sugar Rush theme by AKB48, a combat track for Hero’s Duty by Skrillex, and the obligatory tribute song by Buckner & Garcia, of “Pac-Man Fever” fame.
The visual style changes from game to game as well. Hero’s Duty and Sugar Rush are exactly how they should be, and the latter is jam-packed with candy name-dropping. But the attention to detail really shines in the venerable Fix-It Felix, Jr.. Even when we aren’t looking at it “from outside”, the style feels pixelated; a cake gets smashed and the icing lands in grid-shaped blobs on the walls. And the Nicelanders themselves move in the jerky, digitized style of 8-bit sprites.
I also have to give credit to the actors who breathe life into a cast of characters that’s right up there with Pixar’s best. Reilly, in particular, brings real pathos to what could have been a truly goofy character. Silverman swings easily from her normal, zany style — or at least a PG version of it — to a bittersweetly touching performance as the story demands it.
So if you spent any time in an actual arcade growing up and have done what you’re evidently supposed to have by this point and had kids, go see this movie. If you haven’t had kids yet, go see it anyway and ignore those who say it’s for a younger crowd. You can probably afford it more easily. And in either case, stay all the way through the end credits.
Worth It: absolutely, if you’re under 40.
Bechdel Test: fail.