All the arcade’s a stage,
And all the sprites and pixels merely players:
They have their lost lives and their level-ups;
And one gamer in his time spends many quarters…
And that pretty much sums up life in Litwak’s Arcade, as presented by Wreck-It Ralph. By day, children stream in to play their favourite games, both classic and new. By night, the games’ characters are free to roam about, even visiting each other’s arcade cabinets. There’s a gentleman’s agreement amongst the virtual populace not to interfere with other games, and the punishment for breaking the rule is severe: Any character who dies outside of his/her/its game will not regenerate, and that character’s game will be unplugged and removed from the arcade, for ever.
One of those games is Fix-It Felix, Jr., a Donkey Kong-esque platformer, which is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary. In this game, Felix (Jack McBrayer) repairs the damages to a building ravaged by the hulkish brute Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), who lives in the local dump. Upon reaching the roof, the building’s denizens reward Felix with a gold medal, and they unceremoniously gang up on Ralph and toss him down to the mud below.
Outside of his game, Ralph attends a support group for video game villains, not unlike Alcoholics Anonymous. Ralph dares broach the possibility of playing a good guy, which is immediately met with protest. Everyone has a job, and his is to be a bad guy, which doesn’t make him a bad guy. Ralph initially seems accepting of this arrangement until later that night.
Felix and the many tiny people who live in the building Ralph regularly tries to destroy are throwing a thirtieth anniversary party, and the guest list even includes characters who aren’t from their game. (Mario, as usual, is fashionably late.) Ralph, however, is not invited, and hurt by his exclusion, he crashes the party, along with most of the apartment where it is being held. The other guests reject Ralph and say that he can only earn their respect by winning a medal like one of the hundreds Felix owns.
Ralph eventually sneaks into a first-person sci-fi shooter called Hero’s Duty, where he tangles with Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the tough-as-nails blonde programmed with the most tragic backstory in the arcade. Ralph winds up ruining the game by interfering with the character controlled by the player, so he decides to climb the game’s central beacon and snatch his medal in between game sessions. Ralph has never been particularly graceful, and he accidentally hatches a monstrous creature called a Cy-Bug, which latches onto him. Ralph launches an escape pod and crash-lands in Sugar Rush, a colourful, saccharine kart-racing game, where everything is edible (and diabetes-inducing).
This causes a host of problems: With Ralph missing, Fix-It Felix, Jr. malfunctions and is unplugged and labelled Out of Order, rendering its characters homeless. Felix teams up with Calhoun to find Ralph, as well as the Cy-Bug, which will rapidly multiply and destroy Sugar Rush if left to its own devices.
What plays out after this point is a clever story line divided into the main plot, in which Ralph embarks on another misadventure in Sugar Rush, and a subplot in which Felix and Calhoun search for him — and grow quite close in so doing. That is one of the most surprising takeaways from Wreck-It Ralph: It’s very, very smart. This is a welcome surprise, given Disney’s less-than-stellar track record with non-Pixar computer-animated films over the last decade (Home on the Range, anyone?).
Of course, given that the entire film is largely a video-game version of Pixar’s masterpiece, Toy Story, the formula works well here, as a natural extension of the secretly-sentient-toy blueprint sketched out seventeen years ago. That having been said, Wreck-It Ralph is no cheap knock-off, and it stands on its own as a fun, action-packed romp, with a lot of heart (the emotional kind, not the power-up).
The film is filled with real-world video game characters and stocked with gamer in-jokes (or perhaps more appropriately, Easter eggs) that will go over the heads of many parents and younger viewers, but for those in-between — as well as gamers of all ages — the references hit their mark. The result is 108 minutes of pure, unadulterated nerdgasm.
It certainly helps that the story is supported by a diverse slate of characters, whose voices were brilliantly cast. John C. Reilly’s Ralph is a loveable lug, who displays a wide range of emotion throughout the film. Jack McBrayer’s Felix is a bashful wisp of a man, with a Southern drawl and an aversion to confrontation, despite normally playing the part of a hero. The partial role reversal Ralph and Felix undergo outside of their arcade cabinet is obvious and plays into each character’s hidden strengths, Ralph’s natural good nature complementing Felix’s innate humility.
Jane Lynch did not have to move out of her acting comfort zone when she voiced Sergeant Calhoun, but that’s a good thing. She basically transfers her Glee character, Coach Sue Sylvester, to Calhoun, sans crappy pop music covers and overtly gay adolescent anti-bullying story lines.
In addition, Sarah Silverman was the perfect choice to play Vanellope von Schweetz, the black sheep racer of Sugar Rush. Normally, Silverman’s prepubescent voice is… unsettling, coming from a grown woman entering the early years of menopause. But hidden behind the façade of a 9-year-old video game character, her precocious elocution fits.
Wreck-It Ralph is a love letter to the art of gaming, much the same way The Artist was a love letter to the art of film. It is a fantastic experience, with an engaging, emotional story line; a biting sense of humour; and a soundtrack that will have parents dancing with their children in the aisles. But a word of caution to said parents: Some scenes may prove too scary for the youngest viewers, so any little ones prone to nightmares might be better served sitting out this film.
For the rest of us, Wreck-It Ralph cannot be recommended more highly. Disney has given the moviegoing public an early Christmas gift, wrapped in an 8-bit bow. Funny, happy and damned smart, Wreck-It Ralph deserves more than a few of your quarters and perhaps even a repeat playthrough.