Does Wreck It Ralph beat up the 2012 animated competition, or should you save your quarters for a better game?
For today's kids, video games are a integral part of their lives, existing as both entertainment as well as the center of their digital lives. But for those of us old enough to remember, video games were mostly limited to arcades, creating a sometimes frenzied environment where kids would line up with their quarters to take a shot at the newest game. Between the ages of 10-15, I must have single-handedly kept my local arcade open, that is until the Atari 2600 was released. I watched as the industry changed, as home consoles took over, grinding most arcades to dust while generating an excitement for gaming that continues today. Whether home consoles have made us better players today is debatable, but there's no denying the importance that arcades once played. Wreck It Ralph tries to conjure up fond memories of quarter games and pizza parties, but does it deliver the goods? Sadly, Wreck It Ralph loses steam in the third act, failing to connect the many arcade references to the story itself and settling on territory that's been covered before.
John C. Reilly (Step Brothers) plays Ralph, a Donkey Kong-like baddie who likes to crush penthouse apartments while his arch enemy Fix-it Felix (Jack McBrayer, Despicable Me) magically repairs the shattered windows and torn down facade. When the arcade closes at night, our characters live in a digital world that's just a screen away from the real one. Characters can travel to other games via a Grand Central Station-type lobby, but some are stuck in the station when their game is retired (Q*Bert and his family get a handout from Ralph as he returns from an AA-type meeting for baddies) For 30 years, Ralph has been happy to become unceremoniously disposed of by the apartment's tenants at level's end, but soon he decides that living in the ruins of shattered buildings while Felix is admired by the tenants is no longer appealing. After crashing the game's 30th anniversary party and learning that the tenants' hatred for him is actually real, he ventures outside the game, battling "Cy-Bugs" in Hero's Duty alongside Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch, Glee). Soon, his master plan to win a medal - which he hopes will make him more accepted by the tenants - lands him in the racing game Sugar Crush, where the program Glitch (Sarah Silverman, School of Rock) has been cast out by the more glamorous female racers and by the evil King Candy (Alan Tudyk, Serenity). Gltich is really the princess Vanellope von Schweetz, whose current social status as a problematic personality mirrors Ralph's. Together, our odd couple learns of a dire threat to the entire arcade that Ralph may have inadvertently started, forcing Calhoun and Felix to join the fray.
There's a few things about Wreck It Ralph that bug me, and these keep me from recommending it. Director Rich Moore brings his Simpsons sensibilities in action sequences which are neither imaginative nor convey any sense of action. His cast does a fair job with the material, but we've heard better performances this year in Hotel Transylvania and Ice Age 4. The screenplay by newcomer Jennifer Lee does have some surprise moments that will bring chuckles from the older crowd, but kids might leave having wanted more action and less plodding story. In fact, Wreck It Ralph smacks a lot like previous Disney films, as if the studio seemed content to pull several old tricks out of its hat, with Vanellope playing Cinderella, Ralph playing Jim Hawkins from Treasure Planet, the digital landscapes at film's end looking a lot like Tron, and the story's 'after-hours' premise mirroring Toy Story. Voice performances are adequate but unremarkable, reminding us how important casting plays in an animated film. Don't get me wrong, Wreck It Ralph is not a terrible film at all; but if I wanted yet another story about how society's rejects rise up to be loved by their oppressors who suddenly see the light, I might have delved deeper into the Disney catalog to find a better example. Why Disney feels the need to constantly do this instead of creating original and inspiring themes is beyond me, but too many rookies in key positions deliver a film that's mostly flat and full of corporate branding. There is a short before Wreck It Ralph called Paperman, a thoroughly enjoyable piece about finding true love in paper airplanes. Don't surprised if it overshadows Ralph come Oscar time.
Wreck It Ralph is suitably fun entertainment, good for an afternoon of casual remembrances of our youth when we poured dozens of quarters into machines without realizing how much we were spending. Beyond that, its plot is uninspiring, with Disney's efforts doing more to generate better stories of pizza parties at the arcade than the one we're witnessing on the big screen. The voice talent is suitable but not extraordinary by anyone's standards, with many of them failing to connect as viable versions of their computer-generated selves. Kids will connect more with Glitch than recognize any of the classic game references. And those of us who remember these games will be surprised at what's missing: no Galaga, Defender, Asteroids, or Centipede, titles that certainly could have been generated more laughs than those concocted for Q*Bert. Sadly, Disney proves once again that without Pixar, all it can do is rehash old Cinderella-type stories about cast-asides destined for greatness. There have been plenty of bad movies this year; Wreck It Ralph is certainly not one of them. However, don't expect too much from this one, as an instant classic it's not.
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