Disney Animation takes a page out of Pixar's well-worn playbook for Wreck-It Ralph, a screwball farce with a novel setting and more edge than your average Disney 'toon.
Where Toy Story showed us the off-duty shenanigans of a kids' toy collection and Monsters, Inc. took us behind the scenes of the bogeyman business, Ralph finds fun in the outside-the-arcade-game life of the characters trapped in those games, forced to play hero, pawn or villain forever. Or until the game falls out of favor and the power is shut off.
The cartoon-voiced John C. Reilly gives life to Ralph, a beast in a Donkey Kong-like kiddie game titled Fix-It Felix. Felix, played by Jack McBrayer, the pixie-voiced page of NBC's 30 Rock, repairs this wonderful apartment building for all his friends, the tenants, to live in. The hulking Ralph, 9 feet tall and 643 pounds, lives in the brick pile over by the dump. He wrecks stuff that Felix has to fix.
And this has been going on for decades.
"I'm a bad guy," Ralph mutters. And even though "a steady arcade gig is nothing to sneeze at," he's had enough, he tells his video-game villains (Bad-Anon) support group. He's skipping out after hours, finding his way to a game where he can be the hero, win the "medal," and become beloved.
Ralph, left, voiced by John C. Reilly in a scene from "Wreck-It Ralph."
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The video game universe created here is Monsters, Inc. detailed, and peppered with actual video game characters such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Pac-Man, and Qbert. The filmmakers have fun with graphics and animation sophistication, from the jerky motion of the Pac-Man and Donkey Kong era to the HD slickness of today. Gamers will get a kick out of a montage showing the years pass in this one arcade, with forgotten games such as Battlezone replaced by the next big thing.
Ralph has plenty of places to go for glory. Let's start with a first-person shooter game titled Hero's Duty, where Sgt. Calhoun (Jane Lynch, hilariously over the top) leads her digital commandos into battle against alien "cy-bugs."
"The kitten whiskers and tickle fights stop now!" she growls. Ralph had no idea games could be so violent.
Then there's a place where "kitten whiskers" would be welcome, the girly Candyland of Sugar Rush, where adorable tykes, "children of the candycorn," race candy-shaped go-karts across a candyscape. That's where Ralph runs afoul of Vanellope, given a twinkly edge by comic Sarah Silverman. She's a "glitch," a digitally defective character exiled from the game. She's smart alecky and spunky.
Somehow, she's going to figure into Ralph's dreams of glory. If only Raph can avoid beING dragged back to Fix-It Felix before the game is unplugged. If only Vanellope can outsmart King Candy (the demented Alan Tudyck, channeling the late Ed Wynn) and find a way to fit in.
The voice casting here is stellar. The cracking, booming Reilly would have been right at home on The Flintstones or any Hanna Barbera cartoon of the Golden Age of TV cartoons. Silverman sounds like she's on helium and Lynch has become the biggest laugh in tough-gal comedy — even when she's just using her voice.
In these films, the devil's in the digital details, the little flourishes and sight gags. King Candy has palace guards who'd be equally at home in Oz, or a glass of milk. ("O-Reee-O—-Oreeeee—-ooooo.")
Since taking over all of Disney's animation, Pixar guru John Lasseter has made an imprint on the Mouse's non-Pixar films, and Ralph shows many Pixar house touches — a solid story, dazzling detail, inventive settings and jokey characters. And there's a message bland enough to not offend everyone.
"I will not be good and that's not bad. There's no one I would rather be than me."
The movie stalls in Sugar Rush to the point where your teeth might ache. But there's plenty of video gamescapes left over for a — wait for it — sequel. The eye-popping animation and joke-ready setting suggest Wreck-It Ralph would be right at home crashing through many a game console, and for years to come.
Attached to the Wreck-It Ralph is Paper Man, a delightful black, white and red (lips) 2-D romantic short animated in a more traditional style that is so good it makes you hope Disney doesn't give up on films that aren't about toys, monsters, video games, or princesses.
Directed by Rich Moore. Written by Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston. A Walt Disney release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, Levis Commons, and Cinemark Woodland Mall. Rated PG for some rude humor and mild action/violence. Running time: 98 minutes, plus an eight-minute short.
Critic's Rating: ****
The voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, and Jack McBrayer.