I admit, I was looking forward to Wreck-It Ralph from the moment I saw the trailer. The list of movies aimed towards gamers both begins and ends with Scott Pilgrim vs the World, and the ill-conceived video game adaptations that have hit the screen in recent years have done nothing but embarrass and frustrate genuine fans. It was a breath of fresh air to see a studio with as much clout as Disney try their hand at plying this demographic and a relief to find out how well the whole thing turned out.
The movie’s titular character is Ralph, the antagonist of the classic arcade game Fix-It Felix Jr. Every day Ralph climbs to the top of Felix’s apartment building, smashing windows and shutters along the way, and every day Felix tosses him off the top and repairs the damage. After thirty years of the same programmed routine, Ralph has had it. As he expresses to a support group of fellow bad guys in one of the more memorable scenes of the movie, Ralph wants to abandon his unappreciated role in the game and become a hero like Felix.
Wreck-It Ralph is essentially the Who Framed Roger Rabbit of video games. While Who Framed Roger Rabbit employed Toon Town to intersect its fantastical elements with reality, Wreck-It Ralph employs an arcade. Every night when the arcade is closed, the game characters freely mingle with one another, using a surge protector as a rail link between their worlds. The narrative grounds this abstract premise by laying out specific universal constants, the most important being that characters do not respawn if they die outside of their home game. Like Toon Town, the setting of Wreck-It Ralph succeeds by metering out equal parts nostalgia and novelty. The framing device of the arcade gives the viewer something tangible and familiar to hold on to when exploring the fantastical video game worlds. It’s a clever premise, albeit one that those unfamiliar with video games might be slow to acclimatize to.
It helps that the animators obviously had a field day constructing this universe. Although lacking the radical technical innovation of Pixar fare, Wreck-It Ralph boasts a meticulous attention to detail. The world of each arcade machine is rendered in a specially tailored art style. Ralph’s game is blocky and flat, simulating the pixelated graphics of his aging title. Hero’s Duty in turn offers a slick but abysmally grey landscape peppered with constant explosions and gunfire, aptly mocking gritty modern military titles such as Gears of War. Sugar Rush, a cutesy racing game, is literally candy-coated, offering landscapes so rich and creamy that they almost deserve a movie of their own. These visual treatments drive home the video game parodies the film strives for, and despite the wildly divergent art styles, scenes never feel haphazardly stitched together.
Although the animation is gorgeous, the strong characterization of Ralph is what sells the premise. I generally don’t advocate the use of film actors in place of trained voice actors, but John C. Reilly does a fine job breathing life into Ralph. His performance manages to balance a childlike frustration with an innate haplessness that makes it impossible not to sympathize with Ralph’s lot in life. He may be the bad guy, but at the end of the day, he’s just doing his job. Reilly’s warm doughy delivery allows these positive characteristics to shine underneath the character’s gruff exterior. His performance is one of the most memorable aspects of the film and helps Ralph hold his own against the brand name video game characters he shares scenes with.
Sarah Silverman’s performance, on the other hand, is a shame. Silverman voices Vanellope, a diminutive imp of a girl who resides in the racing game Sugar Rush. She spends most of her screen time harassing Ralph, making gratuitous toilet jokes, or squealing in a high-pitched timbre only Sarah Silverman and some varieties of tropical birds are capable of producing. Unlike Ralph, who we cheer for despite his flaws, Vanellope’s annoying tendencies undermine the dramatic tension in her plot arc. It’s clear the writer’s wanted viewers to sympathize with the girl, but you’ll likely want to strangle her long before the third act. A more subtle performance would have better serviced the character, and Silverman is never a good choice when you’re fishing for subtlety.
Thankfully, Sarah Silverman’s performance isn’t enough to sink Wreck-It Ralph. The premise is clever, the visuals are lustrous and varied, and John C. Reilly’s voice acting pushes it over the top. Although animation purists will argue it’s not quite up to snuff with Pixar’s catalogue, it’s a heartfelt bit of nostalgia that can be enjoyed by viewers of all ages. Remember to stick around for the credits.