Wreck-It Ralph, a brand-new Walt Disney feature, unites child-friendly 3D animation with video games. This will strike many parents as a consummation devoutly to be dreaded, akin to a sentence of consecutive birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Scholars of corporate pop culture synergy, on the other hand, will wonder what took so long, since between them the kiddie-cartoon and joystick rackets account for untold billions of dollars in revenue. The merchandising potential is limitless! In either case, the movie invites a measure of cynicism — which it proceeds to obliterate with a 93-minute blast of colour, noise, ingenuity and fun.
The Toy Story movies have taught us to empathise with inanimate, mass-produced playthings, to imagine them with inner lives in some ways richer than our own. Wreck-It Ralph attempts a similar feat with the pixelated avatars that shoot, scamper and zoom across our various interactive screens. In some ways this represents an easier cognitive leap, since those characters already possess rudimentary personalities along with the ability to move and make sounds.
But video-game characters are also the coldblooded (or maybe code-blooded) inhabitants of rigidly deterministic worlds. They may command our sometimes compulsive attention, but can we ever really love them?
The makers of Wreck-It Ralph — Rich Moore directed, from a screenplay by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee — answer this question by appealing, first of all, to nostalgia, to the affection parents feel for games that evoke their childhoods. Woody and Buzz Lightyear were to some degree baby boomer throwbacks, and Ralph and some of his companions similarly recall the golden age of Generation X arcade play, the 1980s of Pac-Man and Centipede and Donkey Kong.
Ralph, a lumbering giant with huge hands, an appetite for destruction and the voice of John C. Reilly, has toiled for 30 years as the “bad guy” in a game called Fix-it Felix Jr. Every time a quarter drops into the slot, he smashes up an apartment building until it is repaired and he is routed by Felix, a twerpy goody two-shoes voiced by Jack McBrayer.
Fix-it Felix Jr is only one of many game environments created in the film, which cleverly toggles between its own rather conventionally bigheaded, smooth-featured character design and the variously crude, fanciful and realistic styles that the players would see. When the arcade is closed, the characters are able to travel outside and between their native games, a conceit that makes possible some good jokes, a handful of geek-friendly references and cameos — nice that Q*Bert gets a shout-out — and a hectic, multilevel plot.
Ralph, like any true Disney animated hero, undergoes an identity crisis. Treated as a pariah by his colleagues in Fix-it Felix Jr — even though he’s just doing his job — he sets out to become a hero in another game, risking a breach of protocol that is known (for reasons that would be a spoiler to explain) as “going Turbo”. In a violent first-person shooter game where heavily armoured warriors mow down rampaging insects, he encounters a tough commander named Calhoun (Jane Lynch), who will serve as a romantic foil for Felix and as an emblem of gender parity in a usually boy-centric imaginative universe.
Wreck-It Ralph does well on this score, and not only because the main gamer — an eager, mostly silent surrogate for the audience — is a girl. Ralph’s main field of battle is a car-racing game called Sugar Rush, which unfolds in a hallucinatory Hello Kitty candy land with more gumdrops than guns. There he meets his fellow outcast and obligatory sidekick, a sharp-tongued pixie named Vanellope von Schweetz. She compensates for her cloying name by channeling the voice (and therefore, at least by implication, the sensibility) of Sarah Silverman.
Vanellope is a “glitch” — a malfunctioning programme come to life — mocked and despised for her difference by the mean girls of Sugar Rush (led by Mindy Kaling) and their creepily saccharine king (Alan Tudyk). Her battle for self-esteem is linked with Ralph’s, and — this being an animated Disney feature — the outcome is hardly in doubt. But perhaps because the mood of the movie is so relentlessly playful and kinetic, its bouts of sentimentality feel refreshing, not forced.
Wreck-It Ralph manages to be touching as well as silly, thrilling and just a bit exhausting. The secret to its success is a genuine enthusiasm for the creative potential of games, a willingness to take them seriously without descending into nerdy pomposity. I am delighted to surrender my cynicism, at least until I’ve used up today’s supply of quarters.
Wreck-it ralph (u)
Director: Rich Moore
Voices: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk Running time: 93 minutes