(by Dustin Putman
Full-length animated features are either going to have to start upping their games or stop attaching far superior shorts onto the start of their theatrical runs. Disney's "Wreck-It Ralph" is cute and all, but the whimsical black-and-white romance "Paperman" that precedes the main attraction is such an effervescent, note-perfect charmer, encapsulating more genuine emotions in the span of ten minutes than the vast majority of films manage in ninety, that one almost has half a mind to get up and leave when it's over, not wanting to chance that the upcoming movie proper might spoil the spell. This is not to slight "Wreck-It Ralph," which resounds with freshness and wit when it isn't falling into the trap of the chaotic video games it is satirizing, only an observation about how creatively thriving short-form animation seems to be in recent years. Article continues below
"Fix-It Felix Jr." is a tried-and-true, 8-bit arcade staple, a video game in which handyman Felix (voiced by Jack McBrayer) must continuously rebuild an apartment building after it gets destroyed by the lumbering, 9-foot-tall, 600-plus-pound Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly). After hours, when no one's around to play, the characters in the game clock out as if it were a regular job and return to their own lives. Most are fine with this, but having to play the outcast and villain for thirty years can really take it out of a person, and Wreck-It Ralph, who lives in the brick pile next to Felix's apartments, is tired of being treated like a second-class citizen. When a half-hearted invitation to Felix's party goes awry, once again ending in damaged property, Ralph sets out to claim the kinds of medals Felix is regularly awarded—a sign of good-doing and respect.
His first stop is in a state-of-the-art post-apocalyptic war game called "Hero's Duty," where he meets the tough Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), and next up is the candy-colored—and covered—"Sugar Rush," where, unbeknownst to Ralph, a destructive bug from "Hero's Duty" has stowed away to. With its escape, the video game world is placed in immediate jeopardy, with Calhoun and an increasingly love-struck Felix setting out to recover it. Meanwhile, Ralph teams up with perky "Sugar Rush" outcast Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a so-called "glitch" who dreams of being a star race car driver. In exchange for his guidance in winning her first race, she agrees to help him become more than just a "bad guy" in the eyes of his peers.
"Wreck-It Ralph" was directed by Rich Moore (he formerly worked on "The Simpsons"), and the film is one that won't leave anybody wanting in the graphics department. The movie is a sight to behold, partly because the computer animation is so lovingly detailed and partly because the imagery is so diverse, each individual game world immensely different from the last in both style and level of technological advancement. Seeking to do for video games what 1989's "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" did for cartoon characters, Walt Disney Pictures has managed to license a great many recognizable faces, from Pac-Man's orange nemesis Clyde to foot-stomping dragon Bowser from "Super Mario Bros." Unless one is well-versed in electronic gaming, however, most cameos will likely fly over some viewers' heads. Moreover, save for the couple scenes where Ralph attends a Bad-Anon meeting for depressed villains, the jokey material involving these creatures is kept very soft—no doubt to appease the many different companies who agreed to let Disney use their likenesses.
Screenwriters Phil Johnston (2011's "Cedar Rapids") and Jennifer Lee are best at looking at the logistics of being a person in a video game. Sure, in the real world, it's pure fantasy, but what if these characters in arcade games were able to have lives when they weren't being played, or could cross over into other games by way of transportation zooming through the electrical cords. The idea of a Game Central Station, modeled, naturally, after Grand Central Station, is clever, and Wreck-It Ralph is a lovable hero in villain's clothing. While the picture's second half grows a bit too frenetic for its own good—the best scenes are the quieter, more introspective ones—leave it to a little spitfire named Vanellope von Schweetz to steal the show. Voice work doesn't get much better or more appropriate than that of Sarah Silverman (2012's "Take This Waltz"), whose friendship with Ralph becomes the soul of the story. Vanellope isn't the antagonist in "Sugar Rush," but she knows what it feels like to be rejected and not "in" with the in-crowd. Silverman delivers most of the best lines—her double-entendre aping of the title "Hero's Duty" is enormously funny—but her acerbic nature never gets in the way of her underlying sweetness. There's a reason her last name is Schweetz.
The ending of "Wreck-It Ralph" is bittersweet, and having watched 1982's "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" only a week ago, an undoubted ode to that classic fantasy, with Vanellope telling Ralph that he should stay with her in "Sugar Rush." "You could be happy here," she pleads, just as Elliot told his alien best friend in "E.T." In contrast, the ultimate marriage that becomes of a different pair's relationship doesn't make entire sense since they're from two separate worlds, but one assumes they'll be able to visit each other enough when the arcade goes dark to have a blissful life together. The story of two underdogs who finally get their day in the sun, "Wreck-It Ralph" probably won't endure like the best of Disney's animated canon, but it's a slight, well-meaning entertainment all the same. Sending out the message that it's important to be true to yourself is a valuable one for children to learn—and probably a few grown-ups, as well.