Normally, I’d have a snarky and condescending opinion about a film like “Wreck-It Ralph” because it’s made for children to watch, parents to tolerate, and advertisers to milk for all its worth but this one is different. It has the rigid Disney movie plotting that most American animated films follow to multimillion dollar success and all the time tested character archetypes that look so good on the side of a happy meal box but it has enough heart and cleverly deployed pop culture references to allow me to overlook its intrinsic natural as a commodity. The film isn’t transcendent art but it is transcendent product.
The film follows Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), the villain of an 8-bit cabinet video game character who has grown tired of his stifling one-dimensional existence and journeys to differnt games in his arcade to win a hero’s treasure and adulation of his hometown sprites. On his quest he ventures to a Candyland like racing game where he meets and teams with a glitchy young outsider (voiced by Sarah Silverman) to win prizes for both of them but there are, of course, a number of externally and internally generated problems along the way. The plot is fairly boiler plate but it’s just a pretext to allow the filmmakers to inventively interweave a number of different video game style graphics in a world that feels like “Toy Story” minus the angsty childhood trauma.
From the hard neon green and black shine of a “Halo” inspired shooter to the pink and orange pastels of the Candyland racer, all the settings in “Wreck-It Ralph” are visual marvels. And sections when the worlds intersect, where an 8-bit spite bumbles through a vast XBOX 360 battleground or when a mechanized virus chews its way through digital candy cane trees, are stunning. Nothing about the film can be described as new; much of its power is derived from the brightly colored palettes of the 20th century’s greatest console hits, it’s totally successful in contrasting and mashing together vastly different tones and aesthetics.
Without an emotional grounding, all the pretty graphics are just Phantom Menace emptiness but co-writer/director Rich Moore had the good sense to John C. Reilly as a lovable lug who is trying to be something more. While Reilly could play this kind of role in his sleep, he invests Ralph with warmth and deep seeded sadness that transcends his role. Sarah Silverman’s annoying/sweet little frequently irritates, but she also manages to be more charming than a character designed for maximum toyetic potential should be. And Alan Tudyk, doing a pitch perfect Charles Nelson Reilly impression as the King of Candyland is incredibly enjoyable.
The central performances in the film are clearly modulated to hit that sweet spot between childish frenzy and the young adult yearning for big, overwhelming emotional moments and the film’s pop culture sensibility is plainly for grown folks. Depressing support group meetings, the Konami Code, TSA hassles, Mortal Kombat heart ripping, and comically tragic heroic backstories are all referenced in the grand tradition of kiddie movies that understand they need to entertain the adult audience that bought tickets as much as the children that actually wanted to see the film. As opposed to the gross and stupid school of animation practiced by Steve Oedekerk, expensive tent pole films have to be appeal to parents on some level and much to my growing terror, today’s parental buyers are my age. Those old school callouts are there to reassure us that the pop detritus we love as kids not only matters but is at the primacy of our culture. Even though it isn’t and hasn’t been since dubstep became mainstream.
“Wreck-It Ralph” is available on streaming video and Blu-ray through Amazon.
Mario McKellop has written about film on Examiner for the last three years and can be reached directly at email@example.com