Its debt to “Toy Story” may be fairly obvious—though the cloth-and-fabric denizens of the earlier picture are replaced with cyberspace video game characters that have lives of their own away from the gaze of human players—but the creators of “Wreck-It Ralph” have chosen their model well (and even can claim a right of paternity, given that the executive producer is Pixar’s own John Lasseter). And whatever its ancestry, the picture proves a witty, imaginative romp that should please some viewers with its nostalgic references to the pastimes they affectionately remember and everybody else with its explosion of sheer exuberance and warmth.
The title character (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the grumpy villain in an old-fashioned arcade game of destruction and rebuilding in which he’s regularly bested by the hero, Fix It Felix, Jr. (Jack McBrayer), winding up defeated and exiled to the junkyard he calls home. At a meeting of Bad-Anon where he and his fellow bad guys congregate, he expresses his unhappiness with his role, and soon decides—despite the fact that it means rebelling against the rules—to go AWOL. But as he to other games to establish his credentials as a good guy by winning a hero’s medal, his stumbling efforts cause trouble instead.
Happily he doesn’t have to make the trip alone. Ralph quickly links up with Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a pixie-like “glitch” in a game called Sugar Rush Speedway in which vehicles race around in a realm presided over by King Candy (Alan Tudyk). Though there are rough spots, he helps the ostracized kid to follow her dream and win a race—something that will actually change her world for the better. And naturally he learns the importance of friendship in the process. Meanwhile Ralph’s supposed nemesis Felix finds romance with Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the brusque leader of a squadron of soldiers who go up against the hungry cybugs of a game called Hero’s Duty, and they all join forces to save their arcade from a cybug that’s escaped into Sugar Rush and threatens to destroy everything and everyone.
“Wreck-It Ralph” has plenty of action, expertly rendered in animation that cannily combines the retro style of the old games it’s calling to mind with the cutting-edge technology of today, and employing 3D to contribute to the mix rather than merely act as an addendum to it. (The score by Henry Jackson employs a similar blend of the familiarly old-fashioned and the newfangled.)
But what makes it special—as is true of all movies, whether live-action or animated—are the characters, all of whom are genially voiced and develop personalities as full as those of the talking dishes and furniture of “The Beauty and the Beast. Reilly brings his charmingly deadpan tones to Ralph, Silverman is exhilaratingly snippy as Vanellope, McBrayer is perfectly cast as the wide-eyed nice guy, and Lynch is suitably imperious. Tudyk, channeling Ed Wynn’s Mad Hatter, makes a joyous goofy King Candy, who has secrets of his own, and the huge array of supporting characters—many imported for popular old games—are voiced with cheerful care as well.
The result is a PG-family film with plenty of snap but a healthy dose of sentiment too, carefully calibrated to allow make them work as well together as the characters in the games are intended to do. With luck “Wreck-It Ralph” will be the “Toy Story” for the next generation—those who played with joysticks rather than cowboy and spacemen dolls.
Adding to the pleasure of “Ralph” is John Kahrs’ short “Paperman,” a black-and-white beauty about a sad-sack clerical type who woos a girl he sees on the commuter train with scads of paper airplanes. It’s a pre-feature charmer as winning as what follows it.