Wreck-It Ralph, the latest 3-D offering from Walt Disney Animation Studios, is a pixelated paradox that is both entertaining and underwhelming, frenetic and flat.
Full of visual verve, the zippy digital animation clearly smacks of Pixar, as does the story that derives much of its narrative DNA from Toy Story, the 1995 movie that put Pixar on the map. It’s hardly surprising, given that Pixar veteran John Lasseter — who directed the first two Toy Story installments — executive-produced this film.
Like Toy Story, Wreck-It Ralph revolves around the secret life of toys, only here it’s characters from classic video arcade games.
And a very active life it is, complete with after-hour parties and a mass transit system that shuttles avatar straphangers through electrical cables to neighboring machines.
The titular Ralph (John C. Reilly) is a likable but lumbering 8-bit bruiser — with disproportionately large hands. He spends his Sisyphean existence endlessly smashing things as the villain of a fictional video game called Fix-It Felix Jr. — only to have them repaired by the game’s hyper-handy hero, Felix (Jack McBrayer), whom everyone loves.
But Ralph has an identity crisis: He no longer wants to be bad; he wants to be a good guy.
Quite an existential dilemma when you are programmed for bad behavior.
To cope, he attends "Bad-Anon" — a support group populated by a veritable rogue’s gallery of video-game heavies, including Zangrief from Streetfighter, Bowser from Super Mario Bros. and even Clyde the ghost from Pac-Man — where his villainy is validated, and he is warned, "You can’t mess with the program."
Resolved to prove his own "hero worthiness," Ralph "goes turbo" — program speak for crossing over into another game — a major no-no that puts the entire arcade in jeopardy, not to mention his own safety. If you die outside your game, you don’t regenerate.
Sneaking into an ultra-violent first-person shooter game called Heroes Duty, he encounters Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a no-nonsense futuristic marine, and battles a swarm of giant, flying, robotic bugs, inadvertently ending up in the candy-coated environs of Sugar Rush, a high-speed (and higher glucose) road-race game.
There, he befriends Vanellope von Schweetz aka "Glitch" (Sarah Silverman), a precocious, pony-tailed imp who frequently fragments into html coding.
She tells Ralph, "Everybody said I was a mistake and that I shouldn’t even exist." (Apparently, even "Candy Land" is not immune to a culture-of-death mentality.)
She desperately wants to compete in the Sugar Rush race, but the nutty, Napoleonic King of Candy (Alan Tudyk) is equally desperate to make sure she doesn’t.
Director Rich More does a nice job creating a believable cyber world, including an ingeniously rendered transportation hub inside an electrical junction box that is a mix of New York’s Grand Central Station and the cantina from Star Wars.
Also effective is the way More visually contrasts the retro, 8-bit characters with the realism of the newer avatars, prompting one of Ralph’s funnier lines. Upon meeting Calhoun, he blurts out admiringly, "Look at your high definition!"
Acknowledging that not all "advances" are improvements, the film seems to criticize the coarsening of culture exemplified by the aggressive Heroes Duty by having Ralph ask rhetorically: "When did video games become so violent?"
There’s enough screwball zaniness to keep kids entertained, but the target audience is the accompanying adults old enough to have actually cut their gaming teeth playing Frogger and Pac-Man in the 1980s.
As with many animated films these days, the humor has a bit of an edge, including a sight gag involving a zombie character having his heart pulled out — I believe a first for Disney.
Parents should also take serious note that there is a brief, but unwelcome, appearance by Satan, as part of the Bad-Anon attendees. Yes, he’s included among the "villains," but the chummy, light-hearted depiction is a far cry from Disney’s classic rendering of demonic evil in Fantasia’s "Night on Bald Mountain." In fairness, when Ralph addresses him as “Satan,” the digital devil corrects him, “It’s Saltine.”
The film does score points for its worthy themes of self-sacrifice and loyalty. It also teaches a valuable lesson about aspiring to higher virtue, even heroism, despite false rationalizations that stunt true moral growth, as comically conveyed in the Bad-Anon mantra: "I’m a bad guy, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad."
On a theological level, the film’s underlying premise — that we are able to make moral choices — seems to support a Catholic view of free will, as opposed to the Calvinistic pre-determinism expressed by one character: "We can’t change who we are."
Having said all that, there are some glitches that prevent Wreck-It Ralph from being the movie it could have been.
First, Ralph is never established as truly being a "bad" guy, which undercuts real character development. As for the secondary characters, they lack the distinct personalities that made the supporting toys in Toy Story so endearing and memorable.
Toy Story set the bar very high, but in aspiring to that Pixar pinnacle, Wreck-It Ralph falls emotionally short. The central relationship between Ralph and Vanellope — though sweet — didn’t engage me the way Woody and Buzz’s did, or, for that matter, the pairings of Marlin and Nemo, Sully and Mike in Monsters, Inc., curmudgeonly Carl and Russell in Up or even Lightening and Mater in Cars.
Perhaps comparisons to those films are unfair. Despite the ’80s nostalgia, a video arcade can’t compete with the iconic childhood charm of Buzz and Woody’s world and therefore doesn’t resonate as deeply on a sentimental level.
Wreck-It Ralph has its genuinely amusing and even heartfelt moments, but the fun is mostly fleeting, and when it’s finally game over, the joy doesn’t stick.
The film is preceded by the short Paperman by John Kahrs, a silent, black-and-white love story that’s worth the price of admission for the adults, though it may fly over the heads of children.
David DiCerto, former film reviewer for the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is co-host of Reel Faith on NET NY with Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus, who is studying for the permanent diaconate in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Content Advisory: Some mildly crude humor and double entendre; action and peril, including some violent and scary images that may be frightening for young children.