Taking a page out of the "Toy Story" book, "Wreck It Ralph" is about the characters that populated our childhood, and what they do when we're not watching. (Unlike Woody and Buzz, however, these guys don't give a darn if the kids who play with them like them or not. It's just a job.) Ralph is the bad guy in a video game titled "Fix It Felix, Jr." that occupies space in an old-fashioned arcade - the kind that actually took quarters and was managed by a guy wearing, for some mysterious reason, a referee's striped shirt.
When the arcade closes and the kids go home, the characters' lives go on. But Ralph doesn't have much of a life, because he's a bad guy, and everybody in his game hates him. The rest of the characters throw a party, but they don't invite Ralph. Instead, he goes to a Baddies Anonymous meeting, where he commiserates with Zangief (from "Street Fighter") and Bowser (from an endless number of "Mario" games) about how hard it is to be a bad guy. Zangief reminds him that "just because you are Bad Guy, doesn't mean you are bad…guy!" Their motto as a group is "I'm bad, and that's good." The meeting doesn't help Ralph much, maybe because he's not the one that needs to hear it. What they really have is a PR problem; instead of sitting in an Anonymous meeting, these bad guys really should be taking their message to the streets.
Ralph decides he's going to win a medal, just like Felix does, and thus win the love and respect of the folks in his game. So he sneaks into a HALO-style first person shooter and steals the medal from the end, in the meanwhile setting off a chain of events that threaten the existence of the entire video game sub-world.
This all happens in the first half hour, and, if this were just an average movie, I would be able to guess the rest of the film at this point in it. Ralph would spend the next 60(ish) minutes trying to clean up the mess he'd made, and in the process, he would save the video game world, and at the end, just when he thinks of himself as a bad guy for real, everyone would see him as a hero and they would give him the medal he so badly wanted and tried to steal.
But "Wreck It Ralph" is a better, more interesting film than that. Ralph gets himself into trouble, and is plunged in to the candy-coated world of Sugar Rush, a go-kart racing game where nobody is quite what they seem. He loses his medal to a punk kid voiced by Sarah Silverman, and is forced into an agreement with her where if he helps her win a big race, she'll give him his medal back. But then King Candy, the ruler of Sugar Rush (voiced by Alan Tudyk, doing a spot-on and very entertaining impression of Ed Wynn from "Mary Poppins" and "Alice in Wonderland") pulls him aside to explain that if the kid is allowed to win the race, it would spell doom for the entire game, as well as certain death for her. What's Ralph to do?
"Wreck It Ralph" does an excellent job of layering its exposition, so that a seemingly throwaway comment in one scene suddenly becomes an important plot point ten or twenty minutes later. That's a pretty simple storytelling principle (though it's far too often ignored in Hollywood,) but what's really impressive is that these comments never feel like they're being dropped on purpose; it's never obvious that the screenwriters are telling us something we'll need to know later in the story. That takes talent, and it's on display here. "Wreck It Ralph" creates and inhabits a clearly unbelievable world, but it's written so well that it feels more believable, more lived in, than some movies that purport to exist in the real world. Contrast this, for instance with "Looper;" that movie did a lot of things right, but the hints it dropped were so clunky and obvious that they broke the illusion; I knew what was coming well before it came, and spent nearly the last half of the film bored.
Another of the things that I loved about "Wreck It Ralph" was that both main characters' quest for actualization puts their respective worlds in jeopardy. When Ralph is absent from "Fix It Felix, Jr." the game can't function, and the real world owner of the arcade (the guy in the referee shirt) prepares to junk it. The punk kid (I've been avoiding her name, because it's such an unholy mouthful, but for the record, it's Vanellope Von Schweetz) feels in her bones that she's a racer, but following that impulse threatens to bring her whole world down around her ears. Their problems look like personal problems, but really, they're community problems; for both of them, the perspective of their entire community is going to need to shift before things can be restored to order and harmony.
That's an awfully academic paragraph about a kids' movie. But "Wreck It Ralph" isn't your run-of-the-mill kids' movie. It passed the kids' test in my house; my 4 year old likes it, though she thinks the bugs are too scary. I like it, too, because it offers something deeper, meatier and more nuanced for adult eyes. And I'm not just talking about the '80s video game references that go right over my pre schooler's head. This is one I won't mind watching over and over again.
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