'Wreck-It Ralph': Game on!
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Our title character, voiced by John C. Reilly, is a bit player in a retro video game called "Fix-It Felix Jr." -- the heel, the bad guy, the destroyer. When we plug a quarter into the cabinet, Ralph and the game's other residents spring to work. Off duty, they're kind of like us, but not. Tired of his endless task of breaking a building only so hero Felix will repair it, and then shut out from an anniversary party for, and by, the game's other blocky residents, he's had it. And so he sets out to be a different person in a world with very different rules than ours, where who you are is literally part of the game's program. Directed by "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" veteran Rich Moore, "Wreck-It Ralph" is fun and warm and bright and terrific. There are moments in it a little too ornate for me both in the comedy and the plot, but it also earns every good feeling it gets.
Ralph is an unlikely hero, and on his unlikely heroic journey he travels to the worlds inside the other game machines at Litwak's Arcade and makes friends in his travels, like jut-jawed knockout Sgt. Calhoun (Jane Lynch) from the violent first-person shooter "Hero's Duty" or the goofy, giddy, glitchy Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), an exile without honor in the candy-themed racing game "Sugar Rush." Ralph even comes to understand, and be understood by, Felix (Jack McBrayer) himself. Broad in shoulder and a tad inarticulate, Ralph also comes to understand himself, and it is here that John C. Reilly's work as a narrator and as a character transcends just entertainment.
The entire voice cast, for that matter, is excellent, with Silverman a standout in what may be, yes, the finest acting work she's ever done as the annoying but heartbroken Vanellope. And Moore's direction of Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee's screenplay fizzes like the Mentos-and-diet-cola hot springs that waits, in "Sugar Rush"'s candy land, like a Mordor of stickiness. There are great jokes, but also great jokes about character, like when McBrayer makes a jailbreak gag strike at the heart of Felix's digital soul with real emotion, a singularly brilliant character moment with a deft touch that's still the work of many hands.
Moore's direction and the film might be a little too ambitious, with a switch too far perhaps in the finale. But the film is as fast and strong and determined as Ralph himself as it jumps between pop culture references that go from the ancient Greeks in Ralph's Sisyphus-like task to the next iteration of "Halo" in another great character moment for Sgt. Calhoun. At one point, Ralph, inside "Hero's Duty," screams, "When did video games become so violent and scary?" That line alone is smarter and funnier and more savvy about video games than all of "Tron: Legacy." Alan Tudyk's wacky but dictatorial King Candy, who rules "Sugar Rush" with an iron fist inside a four-fingered velvet glove, has the vocal tone and tenor of Ed Wynn's Mad Hatter in 1951's "Alice in Wonderland." Moore's work on "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" has given him years of experience in what it takes to pull off broad silly jokes and big clever references, with the added benefit of playing both brows against the middle.
And yet as clever as the writing is, as fast and fleet the direction is, as bright and bouncy as the worlds inside the games at Litwak's are (especially in 3-D), these things matter thanks to the heart and soul of Ralph and Reilly's performance as him. Ralph comes to help Vanellope in her fondest wishes at first out of blackmail and eventually because he recognizes that helping her break the rules of her game's program is helping him change the rules of his life, and making him change how he sees them. Ralph wants to be a different program; he winds up a different person. "Wreck-It Ralph" is a serious contender for the title of best animated film of the year, and while it might seem speedy and stuffed to bursting, all of the story and craft and cleverness never overwhelm the sincere and rewarding heart of a computer-animated film with real joy and humanity in it.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.