Film review: Wreck-It Ralph rises above the arcade fray

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John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman lend a voice to the title roles in Disney's Wreck-It Ralph.  Photo: Disney Studios John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman lend a voice to the title roles in Disney's Wreck-It Ralph. Photo: Disney Studios

Bonus play

Maybe it’s the 1980s and 1990s nostalgia for vintage video games. Maybe it’s John C. Reilly’s and Sarah Silverman’s terrific performances as Wreck-It Ralph and Vanellope von Schweetz. Maybe it’s because so many animated movies lately have been just O.K. (Frankenweenie) or downright mediocre (Brave). But something about Wreck-It Ralph made my cold critic’s heart grow three sizes.

Don’t get the wrong idea. Wreck-it Ralph isn’t a ground breaker along the lines of, say, Pixar’s Toy Story or Ratatouille. And it doesn’t have an anti-bullying message disguised as a mild horror-comedy as ParaNorman does. It is, however, good fun, and better yet, it has the sense to know it’s good fun and not a piece of serious art.

Pity poor Wreck-It Ralph. He’s the bad guy in a “Rampage”/“Donkey Kong” hybrid and he’s tired of being the bad guy. As the heavy in “Fix-It Felix, Jr.,” Ralph destroys a building and then tries to keep the titular hero from fixing it. It seems Ralph always loses, and at the end of each game, the building’s residents and Felix throw Ralph off the side of the building where he lands in a pile of mud.

That’s not the worst of it. Each night, after the arcade powers down, the good guys in the game throw a party in the building’s penthouse. They dance and play merrily while Ralph goes to sleep in a garbage dump at the game’s fringes. He really wants to be the good guy for a change.

To be a good guy he needs a medal, so he ransacks other games at the arcade in search of one. (There’s a sort of Grand Central Terminal in which characters from other games can hang out with each other.) This leads to run-ins with Jane Lynch as a hard-ass commando in a game that features an alien future nightmare; Silverman as a glitchy avatar who wants to win a racing game that, even though she’s a character in it, she’s constantly prevented from competing in; and Jack McBrayer as Fix-it Felix, Jr., Ralph’s in-game counterpart.

Somehow, the filmmakers have crammed enough laughs, pathos, drama and downright giddiness into Wreck-it Ralph to make one overlook just how plot-heavy it is. (The description above quite literally isn’t the half of it.) Once Wreck-It Ralph lays out the plot and ground rules, it hums along briskly with plenty of jokes, some aimed at kids, some aimed at the adults in the audience. There’s also a genuine surprise at the end that does two great things: 1) It fools a lot of people, and 2) It makes sense if you think about it afterward.

Bonus: On screen time for “Food Fight,” possibly the greatest upright game ever, and “Q*bert,” which somehow feels overlooked in the annals of gaming history. In fact, picking out the inspirations for all the in-movie games is half the fun. The stakes are never high, but we are talking about video games. Wreck-it Ralph is worth your stack of quarters. Plus, the opening short Paperman is really cute.

 

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Wreck-It Ralph

PG, 93 minutes/Carmike Cinema 6

 

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