It's not just the joystick junkie in me that admires "Wreck-It Ralph," Disney's wacky new comic adventure with a lovable lug of a video game character at its center. The movie's subversive sensibility and old-school/new-school feel are a total kick.
Its 3-D animation antics are colored by an '80s-era arcade look that is retro deluxe, while its antihero's destructive tendencies have him working a very au courant 12-step program.
John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch and Jack McBrayer voice the anarchy that is about to hit one particular arcade in capital fashion. Though the film is theoretically set in present day, everything about it evokes the not-too-distant past when a quarter would buy a kid a lot of time on a computer game and the arcade was still considered a cool hangout by the adolescent set.
A bit like "Tron," the film exists mostly within the games themselves. The various good guys and bad guys live ordinary lives when the kids aren't there making the moves. The film is far more clever in playing off our connection to everything that is wired in this world — a kid's crushing disappointment when a game is on the fritz is a classic moment.
But "Wreck-It" digs deeper, without getting too heavy, about the ways in which the electronic world has redefined human interaction — the isolation it can breed, the inculcation of a winner/loser class divide, the very social strata that turn out to be remarkably fragile when someone resists.
Consider the games that define "Wreck-It Ralph." The action shifts through three, each with a distinctive visual style and cultural subtext. It starts with Ralph's (Reilly) home base, a simple one called "Fix-It Felix Jr." that is built around the big guy's demolition skills and Felix's (McBrayer) mess-fixing magic hammer. Even the character design is working-class — Ralph bulked up, Felix smaller but equally efficient.
Not far away is the hyper-violent, and hyper-styled, war game "Hero's Duty." Here all the bodies are hard, especially Sgt. Calhoun's (Lynch), a svelte soldier in skin-tight fatigues who has never met a man she didn't want to order around.
And then there's the movie's sweet spot — the anime-influenced "Sugar Rush" — a go-cart extravaganza built out of mouth-watering confections so enticing it will make your teeth hurt. There lives a spunky little glitch (think of it as a computer version of a character flaw) named Vanellope von Schweetz that Silverman milks for all it's worth. She wants her shot at winning a race, but the game won't allow "glitches" to compete and there's a mean-girl group around to make her life miserable. Vanellope keeps pixelating at the most inopportune times — maddening when it's happening on your laptop, genius in the way it keeps the story rocking. She's about to enlist Ralph in her game-changing efforts and a fragile friendship will be born. The testing of their bond does much to shape events in the film, but it will take Ralph a little time to get there.
Ralph's journey begins, as so many do these days, with a little soul-searching during a support group session with other arcade villains. After 30 years in the demo game he's having second thoughts. Destruction is only his day job, but at night Ralph is still on the outside looking in. He feels miscast and misunderstood.
So he sets out for a game that he can win, and a gold medal that he can claim — certain that's the key to acceptance back home. His going rogue sets in motion all sorts of problems with Felix and Sgt. Calhoun in hot pursuit — "hot" being the operative word for their surprisingly sizzling connection.
There is great attention to detail in the creation of Ralph's universe — both in design and in intent. Take the transit system that runs through the electric cords — not only does it look cool, it allows the characters to break out of their own boxes. And who doesn't need that on occasion? Game Central Station — grand and meticulously conceived — is the gateway to the inner-arcade world. Echoes of a certain New York City Beaux-Arts terminal are surely intended and is but one of many delicious visual allusions.
The ever-present fear for the game pieces is that a bug will corrupt their system, a fear that soon threatens to become reality. From the invading bug and the way it spreads to the computerized innards of the games, the animators have had a field day.
Despite "Wreck-It Ralph's" mind-boggling visual range, the film's major asset is its humanity. First-time feature animation director Rich Moore never loses sight of that as he revs up this fast-moving film. Guess those years spent on "The Simpsons" didn't hurt. Written by Phil Johnston, whose first feature was last year's smart real-people comedy "Cedar Rapids," and Jennifer Lee making her feature debut, the script never sacrifices the central story for a joke either. That choice makes room for a lot of heart to work its way in around the comedy with Reilly and Silverman, both excellent, doing the heavy lifting on that front.
More culturally connected and a tad racier than we usually see in the Disney brand, "Wreck-It Ralph" does a terrific job of providing enough oomph and aaaahs for adults and plenty of giggles for kids inside its artfully wrapped animation package. Whether the presence of Pixar's John Lasseter at the studio's animation helm or the new kids on the filmmaking block are responsible, the film blows in like a fresh 21st century breeze.
MPAA rating: PG for some rude humor and mild action violence
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: In general release