I've been playing video games for almost as long as I've been alive. I can still describe the first time I saw a video game and became transfixed by “The Legend of Zelda” when my childhood buddy, Brian Green, first got it for his Nintendo Entertainment System on Christmas morning back in the '80s.
I would be transfixed each time I would walk into a skating rink or arcade and marvel at the rows of machines. “Pac-Man.” “Donkey Kong.” “Dig-Dug.” “Street Fighter II.” “Galaga.” These are the games that not only were a staple of my youth's entertainment, but they also sparked my imagination. I have countless memories of plunging dozens of quarters into arcade games or staying up well into the early morning hours during sleepovers (well, sleepovers in name only) at friends houses as we would (usually in vain) try to beat whatever new game we'd gotten our hands on.
My point is that videos were, in many ways, as formative to me and my youth (and youthful imagination) as old Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny cartoons were to generations before me. So when a film like “Wreck-It Ralph” comes along and manages to not only perfectly and effortlessly tap into those memories, but also use those characters and images to develop a heartwarming and charming story, well, it becomes something special. And I imagine that many in my generation who share similar memories will agree.
But fear not, “Wreck-It Ralph” isn't simply a nostalgia trip cashing in on the memories of 8-bit sprites dancing in gamers' heads. The film actually front-loads most of its references (some more overt than others) and cameos (some so obscure even I wasn't sure of their origin) in the first act and spends most of its time focusing on the titular Ralph.
Ralph (voice of John. C. Reilly) is the villain of “Fix-It Felix, Jr.,” a “Donkey Kong”-esque classic arcade game and it's his job, everyday, to wreck the Niceland Apartments so that Felix (Jack McBrayer) can fix the damage using his special hammer. Ralph's only reward for doing his job is to get tossed from the rooftop into a mud puddle below. After 30 years of wrecking the apartment building and only being shunned simply doing his job, Ralph is tired of being the bad guy (a confession he makes to Bad Anon, a support group for video game villains). So in the hope of, for once, being the hero, Ralph hops games into “Hero's Duty,” a first-person shooter where he learns characters earn medals.
There are some bigger elements that eventually come into play, but the majority of the plot hinges around Ralph needing to get back to his game before the plug gets pulled and its characters essentially rendered obsolete.
We spend the majority of time with Ralph and Vanellope and it is in their relationship that the heart of the film is revealed. This is a story about coming to terms with one's identity and realizing that one's worth isn't derived from what you aren't, but embracing who and what you are. It's a theme that has dominated many of this year's animated films (though in a society where childhood bullying is more rampant than ever, this can only be a good thing) and it's executed here perhaps better than any other recent film.
The script is written so that even kids can grasp the themes at play, but it's done in a way that respects the intelligence of the entire audience, regardless of age. In fact, there's a character moment during the film's climax that admittedly had me shed a couple of well-earned tears. It was a moment that wasn't unexpected, but it was executed so well across the board (especially thanks to Reilly's wonderful vocal performance) that it hit that emotional bull's-eye with significant impact.
If nothing else, “Wreck-It Ralph” shows that Disney's own in-studio animation work is finally up to par with some of Pixar's material. It's not on the level of, say, “Up” or “WALL-E,” but I wouldn't hesitate to put it up against the likes of “Monsters, Inc.” and such. The animation is superb. The script is excellent, always moving the story forward, always focusing on character and delivering well-earned emotion.
“Wreck-It Ralph” feels rare among movies of its sort, offering a genuine love letter to something but never playing off of it for cheap, empty sentiment. It revels in the “language” and history of video games, but it gives us more than just an endless string of references.
This is easily one of the best, most charming animated films this year.