By now, at least one generation of children will have grown up in a world where characters like Pac-Man, Mario, and Sonic the Hedgehog are just as iconic and beloved as Mickey Mouse was to their parents and grandparents. So in a way it's rather fitting that Disney is the studio to bring a film about the secret lives of video-game characters to the big screen. Thankfully, they've done it with enough heart and wit to please both children and hardcore gamers alike.
Like "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" and the "Toy Story" trilogy, which pulled back the curtain on cartoon characters and childhood playthings respectively, the computer-animated "Wreck-It Ralph" explores what life is like for the inhabitants of these games. It turns out that these characters have hopes and dreams just like anyone else, completely apart from what they're told to do by a joystick.
For the title character, Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly, in an inspired casting decision), the destruction-prone heavy of the "Donkey Kong"-like game, that means longing for acceptance from his fellow game-dwellers, who treat Ralph like a villain even after the game is over. His job is to destroy buildings while Felix, the game's hero, attempts to repair the damage. As a result, Ralph leads a lonely life and, after 30 years of playing the bad guy and being hated for it, wants his chance to be the hero.
After crashing a 30th anniversary party being held in Felix's honor, Ralph decides that if he somehow had a medal like the one Felix is awarded at the end of their game, he could be a hero, too. This leads Ralph to start "game jumping" in an attempt to visit other games, hoping to find someplace where he can at long last be the good guy.
After his first attempt, in a first-person shooter game called "Hero's Duty," nearly gets him killed, Ralph escapes into a racing game called "Sugar Rush" (think "Mario Kart" set in Candyland). There he meets Vanellope von Schweetz (voiced by Sarah Silverman, perfectly straddling the line between loveable and obnoxious), an adorable little moppet with an unfortunate glitch in her code that makes her a potential danger to the other racers in her game, and thus banned from ever being allowed to compete.
Striking up a friendship, the two find that they are kindred spirits, each outcasts with a desire for love and acceptance from a world that adamantly refuses to allow them a chance to do what would truly make them happy. Together, they just might have a chance to change their destinies.
While the initial draw of "Wreck-It Ralph" is the chance to see dozens of classic video-game characters brought to life and sharing the same screen (getting the rights to all those characters, from Q*bert to a bunch of the "Street Fighter" cast, must have been a daunting task), the heartfelt story and gorgeous animation make it a joy to watch.
There are problems in the film's occasionally inconsistent tone, and it sometimes leans a bit too heavily on puns, references, and throwaway gags rather than allowing the humor to come from the characters. (That makes sense considering director Rich Moore got his start on such gag-a-minute animated TV series as "The Simpsons" and "Futurama.") A plot point involving Ralph accidentally allowing one of the enemies from "Hero's Duty" into "Sugar Rush" isn't completely necessary, and is clearly just an excuse for the animators to create a more eye-poppingly epic climatic battle sequence. But these are all minor complaints in a movie as inventive and just plain fun as this one.
"Wreck-It Ralph" is preceded by the animated short "Paperman," an affable little story about an office worker's creative attempts to reconnect with a woman he met on the morning train, that's damned near perfect.