Zany, rambunctious and visually stunning, “Wreck-It Ralph” plunders the world of arcade video games to create a fantasy/comedy where onscreen avatars party like merry hell after the playland closes. Think “Tron” with belly laughs. Or “Night at the Museum” with any laughs.
John C. Reilly delivers an inspired vocal turn as the title character, a Popeye-armed lummox whose role is to damage a building that players repair with the help of Fix-It Felix Jr. It’s a repetitive, unappreciated gig (can you feel it, dads in the audience?), and Felix gets all the adulation from the game’s other characters. Ralph yearns for his own taste of heroism. He gets little help from the members of his Bad Guys Support Group (attendees include “Street Fighter’s” burly Zan-gief, a “House of the Dead” zombie and Inky the Ghost from “Pac-Man”).
So, moving through the games’ circuitry, he infiltrates a futuristic war game and makes off with a hero’s medal. Disrupting that game’s reality sets off a domino chain of collateral disorder. The only way to set things right is to enter a racing game a few cabinets over and join forces with a spunky underdog girl driver (Sarah Silverman in delectably bratty form) who glitches out in moments of high stress.
The film is a visual tour de force, juggling the look of flat, herky-jerky old-school games and the slick, high-def sheen of the current generation. The film cleverly hedges its bets with jokes and references for young and older audiences alike. There’s a quick cameo by the new electronica star Skrillex (who contributed a song to the soundtrack) and jokes for duffers who memorized the up-down, left-right secret codes for Sega Genesis game pads. Though young moviegoers probably play their games on iPhones rather than quarter-gobbling standup consoles, the film’s impish energy will surely carry them along. Older gamers should feel sweet pangs of nostalgia when Q-bert, that tube-nosed jumping eggplant of yore, drops in to goose the plot along.
The Disney Animation project was overseen by John Lasseter, chief of the Pixar brain trust, and it’s a relief to see him back in his element after the live-action fiasco “John Carter.”
Alongside Emmy-winning director Rich Moore (“The Simpsons”), Lasseter makes “Wreck-It Ralph” a colorful rebuke to the established Disney formula of recent years. There’s less reliance on movie-star vocal turns, musical numbers and goofball sidekicks, but more whitewater pacing, character development and wit alongside the standard Mouse House sentiment.
Beneath the whirligig fun there’s a message or two to chew on, with bad guys who are really good and good guys who are truly villains. Jane Lynch is a hoot as Sgt. Callahan, a two-fisted military heroine whose macho mannerisms guard a heart as soft as sweet creamery butter. And Alan Tudyk delightfully mimics Ed Wynn’s giggly, quavering voice as King Candy, the Oz-meets-Mayor- McCheese sovereign of gameland. Tudyk knows how to say funny things, and how to say things funny.
The film is all about being one’s best self under pressure, reaching out to outcasts and trying to understand the rules that other folks operate by. But there’s not a preachy or heavy-handed moment in the film. Game on!