After a very long engagement that began with the original Toy Story, Disney finally made an honest woman out of Pixar in 2006, when it paid the requisite billions to move the computer animation giant into the Magic Kingdom. But Disney’s spirited 2010 hit Tangled made it abundantly clear that Pixar had a say in the creative marriage: The story of Rapunzel may be standard Disney princess fare, but the whip-crack pacing and fractured-fairy tale wit felt unmistakably Pixar. From now on, it would seem, Mickey Mouse and Luxo Jr. might remain separate icons, but they’re marching under the same banner.
With that in mind, see if the premise of Wreck-It Ralph sounds familiar: A collection of synthetic characters — some new, some recognizable and beloved by people of all ages — are playthings for children, but they come to life and interact when nobody else is around. Replace the toy box with the arcade machine, and Wreck-It Ralph is basically a repurposed Toy Story movie, suffused with the same mix of adventure and nostalgia and themes of friendship and the existential crises that come with age. A cynic might dismiss the film as reheated leftovers.
But that cynic would be wrong, because those leftovers are delicious.
Directed by Rich Moore, who had a hand in several all-time great Simpsons episodes (“Marge vs. The Monorail” and “Cape Feare” among them), Wreck-It Ralph is pop nirvana, a headlong rush through classic arcade games and Nintendo standards that’s not too busy playing spot-the-reference to keep from paying off in laughs and heart. It may deploy the Pixar formula shamelessly, but the world of video games — particularly for those who feel affection for them — is uniquely immersive, and Moore and his team of animators have evoked it with equal parts sweetness and wit.
Adding another character to his gallery of ingratiating lugs, John C. Reilly voices Wreck-It Ralph, the 8-bit villain of Fix-It Felix Jr., a 30-year-old arcade favorite that bears a striking resemblance to Donkey Kong. He doesn’t mind hurling debris at Fix-It Felix (30 Rock‘s Jack McBrayer), the chipper young go-getter with the magic hammer, but the “bad guy” label stays with him after hours, when the kids have gone home and the characters inside the game are still shutting him out. After commiserating with various other video game villains — including one of the ghosts from Pac-Man, who hosts “Bad-Anon” meetings — Ralph vows to shed the label by infiltrating another video game and winning one of those “Hero” medals that so frequently adorn his rival.
To that end, Ralph ventures into Hero’s Duty, a modern first-person shooter game that couldn’t be further removed from the quaint mechanics of his 8-bit home. (The differences in the way characters from separate gaming eras move are one of the film’s most subtle, distinct pleasures.) But his adventures eventually land him in Sugar Rush, a Candyland cart-racing game, where he teams up with Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a fluttering “glitch” who dreams of glory but lives in exile from the tyrannical Willy Wonka-type who lords over the circuitry.
Wreck-It Ralph is overstuffed with narrative business — a major subplot sends Felix in pursuit of Ralph with the Lara Croft-like heroine of Hero’s Duty, voiced by Jane Lynch — and the borders and safeguards that rule its world-within-a-world are similarly dense. But none of it gums up the film’s relentless momentum: A lot of thought has been put into how Ralph might interact with the gibberish-spouting Q*bert or the beer-slinging bartender from Tapper, and the story moves fluidly between several richly imagined gaming environments, all connected by a power strip that serves as Grand Central Station.
Though it’s full of touches certain to tickle stand-up arcade game fanatics — the Pac-Man Fever team of Buckner & Garcia contribute the closing-credit song, and the many bleeps and music cues on the soundtrack have been ported over from decades-old classics — Wreck-It Ralph makes good on the core relationship between Ralph and Vanellope, a villain and a glitch who come together as outsiders in their own homes, exiled by their peers. Gaming nerds can certainly relate. (Recommended)