It’s really quite odd, all things considered, that no one has yet managed to make a successful film adaptation out of a video game (pardon me, any lingering fans of the “Resident Evil” franchise, but…no). Odd because, in many ways, Hollywood films and video games have been drawing closer and closer to each other: while games have grown more cinematic, with the best placing great emphasis on strong characters and narrative over pure gameplay, blockbuster films have increasingly borrowed from the frenetic action and high-concept spectacle of the broadest gaming experiences. But the handful of movies that have tried to directly bridge the gap always choose the wrong elements to focus on: convoluted mythology, mindless violence, physically impossible female body types. The immersive, participatory aspect of gaming is completely lost – no one wants to just watch a bunch of random people they don’t know play Mario Kart, because they have nothing invested in the result.
What the smart video-game-related films out there – a list restricted basically to “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and now “Wreck-It Ralph” – realize is that they can’t hold your attention just by showing you the equivalent of game footage. What they can’t offer in direct participation they make up with empathetic characters and engaging, original stories. “Wreck-It Ralph” is every bit the kind of noisy, caffeine-overloaded ride that is supposedly damaging our ADD-addled youth, but it’s so fiendishly clever and unexpectedly poignant that it might get the doubters to realize what’s so much fun about gaming in the first place.
Borrowing heavily from the basic structure of “Toy Story” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” “Wreck-It Ralph” posits that video game characters have a life of their own when we’re not playing with them. And at Litwak’s Arcade, these characters even have the opportunity to travel to other games; so if you ever wanted to know what would happen if Bowser met Sonic the Hedgehog, this is the movie for you. For everyone else, there’s Ralph.
Inside his game, Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the villain, a destructive monstrosity perpetually defeated by heroic handyman Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer). Since the game is just a simple 8-bit arcade entertainment, you don’t need much more than these pixelated cookie-cutter roles – but Ralph himself turns out not to be a perpetually raging antagonist, but a remarkably soft-spoken, earnest man who would just like some appreciation for dutifully doing his job day in and day out. Despite the hilarious efforts of a villain support group (led by Clyde of “Pac-Man”) to quell some of Ralph’s self-doubt, the career wrecker decides the only way to earn the respect of his game’s snooty townspeople is to win himself a medal to match his rival Felix’s.
In a lesser film, Ralph’s obsession with obtaining a medal from one of the other games in the arcade (first a violent “Halo”-style shooter called “Hero’s Duty,” then a sickeningly pink Candyland racer called “Sugar Rush”) might be a pointless MacGuffin, but in a video game world it makes perfect sense that Ralph would take such a simplistic, goal-oriented attitude. One of the great strengths of the film is the way it often introduces characters as just what you would expect from a video game, as single-minded automatons – the gruff Sgt. Calhoun of “Hero’s Duty” (Jane Lynch, right in her element) wants nothing but to destroy all malevolent CyBugs, while Sarah Silverman’s glitchy brat Vanellope von Schweetz (yes, really) just wants to race – then gradually and naturally peels back the layers to reveal something quite human.
The best example of this is of course the friendship that emerges between Ralph and Vanellope, as circumstances conspire to have the hulking villain try to help tiny Vanellope win a race. The ruler of “Sugar Rush,” the dithering King Candy (Alan Tudyk, brilliantly channeling Ed Wynn’s Mad Hatter from Disney’s original “Alice in Wonderland”) has banned Vanellope from racing because of her uncontrollable glitches, but his motivations may not be as mean or sinister as they appear. Ralph is faced with some extremely difficult decisions, and it’s really very moving to see the turmoil caused by his care for Vanellope.
Somehow, even as it casually barrels on towards a frenzied climax, “Wreck-It Ralph” finds the time to have the quiet moments that make these character touches resonate. A confrontational scene where Ralph is painfully forced to live up to his name hits home like a to of bricks; it’s not just that he’s let down his new friend Vanellope, but he’s let down himself by reverting to the label that he’s tried so hard to escape. John C. Reilly was an absolutely perfect choice for this role – the only person better than him at playing self-loathing sad sacks is Paul Giamatti, but Giamatti lacks the natural warmth that keeps you on his side even in such darker moments. Writers Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee are smart enough to realize that Ralph’s redemption must emerge naturally – not by turning him into a hero, but by unearthing the heroism that was in him all along.
We’ve come to expect this kind of strong storytelling from Pixar, so it’s wonderful that their colleagues over at the House of Mouse finally seem to have picked up some tricks. Of course, one hardly knows the difference between the two in-house studios anymore, when Pixar is making films about princesses and Disney Animation is run by John Lasseter. Regardless, “Wreck-It Ralph” is a triumphant return to quality for Disney, with seamless animation, exceptional voice acting and inventive production design. The obvious devotion and enthusiasm for gaming behind it – the film’s background is laden with easter egg references to “Street Fighter,” “Final Fantasy” and more – is just the cherry on top. Without exaggeration, this is Disney’s best effort since the mid-90s renaissance, and a promising sign that they’re on the rise again.
Still playing in theaters.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars